The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.” Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories. This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news. They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.
The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.” That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia. Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well. But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries. Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.
But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well. It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers: in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional. It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent. In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty. And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different. Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators? The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base? Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger. Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam: The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.
No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.” But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”