Watching the reaction to the Kandahar massacre has got me worried for America’s collective conscience. I’ve never seen so much widespread apologia for such a truly heinous crime.
Disturbingly absent in much of the US media discourse about this incident is the victims themselves. There’s much hand-wringing over the mental state of the soldier, and what this means for the American action in Afghanistan, and how this tragedy tarnishes the image of US military forces overseas.
But little head-space or discussion time has been devoted to the reality of the atrocity this deranged serviceman commited. Let’s review: a US soldier stomped a child to death, put a gun in the mouth of another child and pulled the trigger, and proceeded to light the corpses of his victims on fire for their families to find. These people had committed no crime other than residing in a formerly Taliban-heavy village, which they had been told to return to for their own safety by the US military.
The presence of the victims and the survivors is felt in this rather good New York Times story, which perfectly encapsulates why this is such a tragedy, for both Afghans and Americans alike: an Afghan man who supported the American efforts to drive out the Taliban has now decided the US should get out ASAP. And why shouldn’t he? He went out for the day with his son, and came back to the smoldering corpses of his family. He has every right in the world to be distressed.
But these people are disturbingly absent in most other stories on the incident. Perhaps we can chalk it up to our collective reluctance to treat Afghan civilians as human. Firstly, treating Afghan civilians as something other than like-you-and-me makes it a lot easier to justify military operations that involve the taking of civilian life.
Collective horror over the fate of innocent noncombatants is disturbing, the sort of thing that keeps us up at night if we allow our minds to wander too far. On the whole, we’d rather not think about it, and this incident has brought the reality of needless civilian death to the forefront. (My Lai comparisons seem obvious, but I agree with Adam Elkus, who prefers to compare this most recent atrocity with the wave of US school shootings.)
The American people’s proclivity for not thinking about has stirred what I like to think of as the Internet Undertow, a stream of relatively anonymous thought that always bubbles to the surface when something really heinous happens. I like to read these comments, as abhorrent as they may sometimes be, because triangulating them often leads to some sort of consensus, admittedly of the sort of people who spend their free time leaving comments on news websites.
Regarding the Kandahar atrocity, commentators on blogs and news websites seem to be coming to a couple conclusions, which I have vastly simplified: “We shouldn’t have been there in the first place, let’s bring the soldiers out now,” and “What did this poor soldier go through to get where he was mentally? Are our pyschological services really that bad?”
As a matter of fact, it, our pyschological services are apparently that bad. The accused soldier’s home military base in Washington recently received flak for overturning over 300 PTSD diagnoses. The killer had previously served two tours of duty in Iraq, had worked as a sniper, and had apparently suffered a head injury from a car crash. Despite all this, no one at the military base appears to have put two and two together and figured out that this man was a strikingly poor candidate for service in increasingly tense Afghanistan. (The debate over whether major bureaucracies such as the US military could ever successfully perform accurate and difficult mental health assessments, no matter how much money might be thrown at the problem, is worth considering here.)
Now, let’s turn to the “poor solider” bit, which is what I’m really interested in. I was naturally horrified when I first saw a near tidal-wave of commentators expressing pity for the murderer, to different degrees and in different forms, from the classic “Kill em’ all, let God sort them out” attitude to a more subtle “Imagine what this man has gone through” argument.
Regardless of how subtly and carefully it may be expressed, I’m still seeing a mass outpouring of pity, and that’s really pretty weird. After all: we can agree that people do not normally express public pity for shameless child murderers. It’s only really possible for a logical person to express pity for a child murderer if you’ve mentally filed away those children as something-other-than-children, something different than your neighbor’s 5-year-old or your own—and if you’ve mentally filed away the solider as a person inherently more sympathetic than said not-quite-children. (Bear with me here.)
Of course, people have attempted to justify this oddly sympathetic attitude in a number of ways. There’s the argument that the serviceman’s sacrifices for the country and ensuing trauma make him an inherently less culpable actor—argument by previous good deeds, if you will. Others pointed out that the Taliban uses young children as suicide bombers or operatives, an eery echo of Vietnam war era paranoia, where everyone and everything could theoretically be Charlie.
A popular strain of thought noted that the Afghan people are unpleasant, untrustworthy, and exceptionally unappreciative of the help the US has given them—inferring that perhaps the Afghan people’s bad attitude brought these killings on themselves, and we shouldn’t be feeling particularly sorry for them.
The fact that the reprisal killing of Taliban fighters and the reprisal killing of innocent children and other noncombatants are not exactly the same thing appears to be lost on these commentators.
When I distill these commentators attitude down to their essence, I’m disturbed, and I believe rightly so. The dark Internet Undertow’s hivemind appears to accept blaming Afghan children for the sins of the father. It appears to accept that an entire people are rendered subhuman by the heinious actions of a few.
It’s a dangerous train of logic that leads to this conclusion: It is more OK for Afghan children to be brutally killed than American children, because they deserve it more.