It’s hard to judge this without being privy to the conversation between Panetta and Times editors. According to news reports, Panetta apologized for the soldiers’ actions, claiming that such brutality was against military policy, and that an investigation was underway. Times editors cited the public’s need to know more about this largely forgotten war. Still unknown is how widespread this phenomenon is. Were the photographed soldiers the proverbial few rotten apples, or the tip of an unsavory iceberg? But even this question begs a more important one: Why are we still in Afghanistan?
Yes, we Americans were all for the invasion after the 9/11 attacks launched by Bin Laden from his headquarters in Afghanistan, with the support of the Taliban. And yes, the perpetrators of this attack should have been brought to justice. But within months, President George W. Bush, who had ignored reports that Bin Laden was planning his attack on America, wrongly conflated Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attacks and shifted the military’s focus from a relatively poor Afghanistan to an oil rich Iraq.
I supported our invasion of Afghanistan. That said, making war carries a heavy cost – not just greatly adding to our national deficit, but more importantly in terms of lives ruined to physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide – not to mention thousands of military casualties. War should be the final resort, undertaken only when all else fails, and as briefly as necessary.
The ugly, though rarely mentioned truth, is that war also produces ogres. It especially pushes borderline men and women into nether territory. If you doubt this, think of the photos published a few months ago of American soldiers urinating on corpses, or those of naked prisoners humiliated on leashes at Abu Ghraib. And of all this pales next to the 1968 Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam, wherein a village was destroyed, with over 100 unarmed residents – including mothers and babies – systematically murdered.
Ever hear the saying, “We destroyed the village in order to save it?” That was the defense raised by American monsters, led by Lt. William Calley.
Yes, such vendettas run contrary to military policy. And yes, these actions properly engendered a national revulsion and, after the massacre was unearthed by reporter Seymour Hersh, Calley was charged and convicted of premeditated murder. But such actions were also the predictable cost of war. War is not a video game; it is not fake blood on the screen. Amid real life and death stakes, war involves split second decisions – not always correctly resolved. War coarsens us as human beings, leading to acts of savagery.
The rest of us Americans – the ones who do not have to witness war up front and in person - have lessened its impact by distancing ourselves. In 1973, America ended the draft, which had propelled so many Vietnam anti-war protestors. We later budgeted our wars separately as an added expense, hiding their true costs. We outsourced war efforts to contractors such as Black Water, then disingenuously claimed its personnel who killed in America’s name were not under our military’s jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, civilians grew bored of seeing endless war coverage on T.V. – even though Afghan war coverage takes up fewer minutes than did the Vietnam war. We even went shopping, per the advice of one President. And now, leading Republicans are once more beating the drums of war in advance of the coming elections.
But the result of making a bad decision – in this case equating the rightful hunt for Bin Laden in Afghanistan (and later Pakistan) to toppling Hussein and keeping our focus on Iraq for over eight years – means that the subsequent decisions were built on a faulty foundation.
Yes, we were right to invade Afghanistan over 10 years ago. But why are we still there, especially after we killed Bin Laden and largely dismantled Al Qaeda? And can we truly imagine remaining at war without leaving lives – American as well as Afghans as well as wherever else we decide to invade - in ruins?
What’s more, by hiding the cost of war from the public, are we not making it more likely that we Americans will go to war again without fully thinking through its costs?
When my friend posed his question, I did not know how to answer, and am still not sure on that particular issue. What I am sure, however, is that the media should make no effort to downplay war’s savagery. That we should remove the red, white and blue bunting in which too many Americans wrap war up, and graphically show what war really means. That we should be willing to pay the clean up costs of the last war – properly funding the Veterans’ Administration and similar agencies helping to make ruined soldiers’ lives right again, helping make their psyches healthy and their families whole – before we even contemplate another war.
The true question we should be debating, then, is this: knowing the true costs of war, including atrocities revealed by these photos, is our war still worth it? Who and what, exactly, are we fighting for that we allow so many lives to be destroyed? Does anyone really think that propping up the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai is really worth it?
The November elections are coming. Let’s see what Romney and Obama have to say about the war in Afghanistan, and proposed wars elsewhere. Then, let us look one last time at those stomach-turning photos and ask ourselves what kind of country we truly want to be.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist