Monday, April 16, 2007

Heroes and Villains

Among the things I hate most about the nature of the woebegone wars we're fighting now is how easily our troops can become the bad guys. The New York Times recently reported on yet another collateral damage incident, this time in Afghanistan.

At, Jeffrey Huber writes:
American marines reacted to a bomb ambush with excessive force in eastern Afghanistan last month, hitting groups of bystanders and vehicles with machine-gun fire in a series of attacks that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men, according to a report published by an Afghan human rights commission on Saturday… …One victim, a newly married 16-year-old girl, was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse, according to her family and the report. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son said he did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.

The incident took place on March 4 in Nangarhar Province. The military began an investigation shortly afterwards, and is now considering criminal charges against the Marines involved. I have no interest in condemning or condoning those Marines, and have no means of doing so. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission report on the incident condemned the suicide bomb attack that started things, but also said that: “In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force. Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.”

That might be true, but it appears that the Commission's report is largely based on anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses. Eyewitness reports are seldom reliable, and we have no way of knowing the underlying motives of these particular eyewitnesses, most of whom are families and friends of the victims and who may or may not have direct or indirect connections with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban.

That the U.S. military is in the final stages of approving condolence payments to the families of the killed and wounded doesn't tell us much. We've been doing that sort of thing for a long, long time. But the outrage among Afghanis seems to be genuine.

“This is not an isolated case,” said Nader Nadery, deputy director of the human rights commission. Nadery said this incident and others like it are defeating the U.S. goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people away from the Taliban. I'll second that sentiment.

The Afghan commission's report has been forwarded to Admiral William Fallon, chief of Central Command, for review. That's just the kind of administrative headache Fallon and his staff need right now. They're already presiding over two failed wars, some kind of murky monkey business or other in Somalia, plus the possibility of an air and maritime operation against Iran.

The Marines involved in the Nangarhar Province incident are still in theater, but the rest of their 120-man company has been pulled out of the country. The entire company will no doubt be subjected to intense scrutiny over the affair, and its morale and readiness will suffer for it. Platoons of rear echelon merry fellows will wipe out mighty forests coming up with lessons learned and corrective training syllabi that no one will ever read.

The Marines under investigation may get a fair shake from the military justice system and they may not. Military justice is always a crapshoot. You could be Private Lynndie England, who got 36 months in the Naval Brig in San Diego for her part in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Or you could be Major General Geoffrey Miller, Donald Rumsfeld's interrogation czar at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, who was allowed to retire as a two-star. Or you could be Donald Rumsfeld, the man perhaps most singularly responsible for every crime and disaster committed in our Middle East misadventure, and retire as Secretary of Defense to a life of luxury that very few of us dare to dream of.

Funny how that works, isn't it? Lynndie England will be lucky to get back her civilian job at a fast food joint. Miller and Rumsfeld will never have to eat at one.

Like I said, I can't condone or condemn the Marines in this story because I don't really know what happened. But I find myself sympathizing with them because it's a travesty that they were in Afghanistan in the first place.

The fourth anniversary of the Mesopotamia Mistake took most of the public's eye off the fact that we've been flopping around in Afghanistan since October of 2001. Five and a half years later, Afghanistan is a narco-state, the Taliban are launching a spring offensive, the Karzai government is a joke and, oh yeah, the tallest Arab ever wanted dead or alive by an American president is still on the loose.

None of that is the fault of the Marines under investigation for using "indiscriminate force" at Nangarhar Province. None of those Marines concocted the elaborate hoax that led to our invasion of Iraq, none of them lied to us year after year about how well things were going there, and none of them tried to blame the "hostile media" or "Defeato-crats" for their own culpability in running two of the most mismanaged wars in U.S. history.

Nor will they live comfortably the rest of their lives on the cushion of their war profits. Whatever the results of their investigation or trials, none of those Marines will land seven-figure book deals, or cushy fellowships with neoconservative think tanks, or high dollar jobs as pundits in Rupert Murdoch's right wing media empire, and they're not likely to pick up executive positions with big profile defense contractors.

And come January 2009, none of them will retire to their ranches in Texas and erect libraries dedicated to the redemption of their legacies.