If there were any doubt that America’s dog-tired of the interminable war in Afghanistan, it should wane with the tragic news that came out of the region this past weekend. One U.S. soldier apparently went berserk, killing and in some cases incinerating 16 Afghan civilians in their homes before turning himself in to military authorities.
It’s the latest in a series of conflicts between Americans and the people they supposedly are grooming for a brighter future under democracy. Earlier, U.S. Marines were videotaped desecrating the corpses of fighters loyal to the Taliban, the authority that ran Afghanistan before U.S. forces invaded in 2001. Then there was the burning of Qurans –Muslim holy books – by soldiers who evidently did not realize this method of disposal, although accepted for worn-out American flags, is sacrilege to orthodox Muslims.
The wanton attack on civilians in the Balandi village recalls the 1968 massacre of hundreds of villagers at My Lai in South Vietnam. That bloodletting, in another war which dragged on longer than either troops or the home front expected, came about when U.S. fighters cracked down on villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong who set mines and booby-traps that killed or injured numerous Americans. Although many U.S. soldiers either witnessed or participated in gunning down women, children and elderly Vietnamese in a frenzy of reprisals, only one, platoon leader William Calley, was convicted. He served three and a half years under house arrest.
Americans don’t like to think their sons and daughters in uniform are capable of such cruelty. They’ve heard stories of atrocities committed during World War II – by the Japanese and Germans, not by their own people. The press accepted military censorship in patriotic support of the war effort back then. The conflict, while horrendous, turned out to be relatively brief. American involvement, from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, lasted less than half as long as the war in Afghanistan has.
Lest we forget, Afghanistan was supposed to be another “good” war, in which America set out to right a wrong perpetrated on its own soil. Anger over the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was so visceral that few politicians could have imagined not striking back at the conspirators behind the outrage, surrogates for the suicidal trigger men who died with their victims.
Beyond revenge, exactly what we hoped to accomplish became a little murky. Most agreed the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s terrorist-in-chief, was a top priority. But he eluded allied pursuers, surviving until President Obama announced 10 years later that bin Laden had been slain by Navy SEALS in a daring raid on his hideout in Pakistan – having been given refuge by our sometime ally against Islamic radicalism.
The military overthrow of Afghanistan’s former rulers came quickly enough. What remains is a cross between conventional war and the peacemaking role America performed in Germany and Japan after World War II. The big difference is that our WWII enemies had been decisively defeated and were at least as sick of killing as we were. They already had advanced civilizations, albeit crippled by the war, and welcomed the victors’ desire to lend a hand rebuilding. In Afghanistan, the trick is to build something from scratch, even though some of the natives don’t want it to happen. They’d rather preserve the old ways.
What seemed a clear-cut mission at the outset has become an ambiguous one in which U.S. combatants distrust their allies, not without reason, and occasionally conduct themselves dishonorably. It’s been a long war, stretching American patience to the limit.