After an American sergeant marauded through an Afghan village methodically shooting unarmed men, women and children, Secretary of State Clinton argued that “this is not who we are.” The president chimed in that we care about Afghan children as much as our own.
While high officials cannot avoid mouthing such mealy Orwellian pieties, that doesn’t mean that we citizens have to sleepily accept their mendacity.
Beg pardon, Madame Secretary and Mr. President, this is who we are. If we really cared about Afghan children as much as our own, surely we would not have so quickly turned to war as our habitual first resort.
No doubt Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama dearly want to wind down our feckless venture there. But the main reason war in Afghanistan has not worked is because official policy so closely resembles, especially from the perspective of the Afghans, the cool murderousness of the deranged sergeant.
It doesn’t have to be this way. But for it to change, we must look much more closely at ourselves and our militarism. It is hard to look at ourselves. We prefer the pieties, the easy stereotypes of “us” as good guys and “them” as bad guys.
And so we lapse into the role of what one anthropologist has aptly called “technocratic colonialists.” Our first and most arrogant rationalization for invading Iraq or Afghanistan is that we know better. We know more about democracy. We know more about the judicious “investment” of military violence for a supposed long-term return in security. We know “our” oil somehow ended up under “their” sand and we have the right to control it.
But two things completely undercut and negate this “superior” knowledge. First, we remain abysmally ignorant about the culture, customs and languages of the countries we invade. The best and the brightest brought us Vietnam by way of the domino theory that communism would spread through the region if we did not draw the line. They seemed to have no idea that a thousand years of nationalistic fervor ensured that the North Vietnamese would no more tolerate the Chinese in their territory than they would the Americans. We conveniently overlooked the fact that Ho Chi Minh admired Thomas Jefferson.
Second, in order to rationalize the subjection of distant peoples no different from ourselves to our campaigns of shock and awe, we have to think of them as subhuman—less real than ourselves. Inevitably and tragically, this means not valuing their children as much as our own.
The worst technocratic symptom in our condescending attitude toward the Muslim masses of Afghanistan and Pakistan is the malevolent use of robotic aircraft flown by remote control from bases on the American prairie. Is the impersonality of these dealers of death so different from the dissociation of the rampaging sergeant? In both cases damage is called collateral when it is pivotal, because it only gives a further spin to the wheel of revenge. The technocratic efficiency of our drones is altogether undercut by the loss of good will toward us. Meanwhile, as we remain bogged down in Afghanistan, Al Quaeda is said to have seeped into sixty other countries. Do we plan to invade them all?
General Petraeus wisely required his officers to read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Through building schools for girls in the outposts of the Afpak region, Mortenson provides an alternative model for turning adversaries of America into friends. But building schools and occupying a nation by force will never work in consort, however much our well-intentioned military leaders might wish. It is long past time to admit that war does not only drive isolated men insane, war itself is insane.