By now everyone who pays attention to the news knows that a US Army sergeant went on a killing spree in southern Afghanistan on Sunday and murdered 16 civilians in cold blood, many of them women and children.
But even those paying close attention know little more about the man’s identity except that he was a veteran of the Iraqi conflict. The army says it will release more information about the killer as its investigation proceeds, and especially after he is charged. And there seems to be little doubt that he will be charged with the military equivalent of multiple murder.
His heinous actions have further complicated our mission in Afghanistan, which has gotten murkier and murkier as the years have ground on. What would be the conditions there which would ever allow us to leave? Even though this man seems to have been the proverbial crazed lone gunman, the damage he’s done to what’s left of our reputation there appear to be immeasurable. People have a hard time separating out official policy and the actions of a group from the actions of a single aberrant member, if those latter actions are dreadful enough.
Those of us who are of a certain age probably thought “My Lai” when we heard the news. But this is quite different, and not just in scope (the My Lai victims numbered in the many hundreds). My Lai was a group action that followed from some poorly-defined and incendiary orders from a leader, and it occurred in the middle of a very hot and active guerilla war. That’s not an excuse of any kind, merely a description (I’ve written at great length about My Lai here and here, and anyone who wants further in-depth study can go here).
I wonder whether there are any characteristics of the sergeant in the present case that are especially sensitive, and whether that’s why the army has been so hush-hush about his identity. Maybe so, maybe not; maybe it’s just the way the military handles such things.
The case reminds us—as though we needed any reminding—how one much damage one person can do, both in killing other innocent human beings without reason or warning (which the facts released so far appear to indicate was the horrific situation here), and in damaging the reputation of other fine men and women and the work they’ve done over the years.
The larger question is what our mission in Afghanistan is accomplishing at this point, or is even meant to accomplish. Initially it was obvious: defeat the Taliban. Help set up an alternative government. But it was clear that anything more would require a societal, economic, and cultural transformation that might be beyond our powers, especially with the resources we were willing to commit to the project, and even if we were willing to do more and become a de facto colonial power there. It’s the dilemma we face in many countries around the world, Iraq being one of them: how to foster the growth of liberal democracies in places that seem unready for them (and may never be ready for them), and what to do in the meantime if their present-day governments threaten us?