Sorting Out the Kandahar Massacre
March 14, 2012
Tamim Ansary, Nushin Arbabzadah, Mizgon Zahir Darby / San Francisco Chronicle
Commentary: "The United States took the wrong approach going into Afghanistan. More soldiers with guns is not the way to manage terrorism or bring peace. " "The Kandahar rampage is a wake-up call for a return to reality and humanity in this war of machines versus ghosts. " "We need to be concerned. It's not just what we're doing to Afghanistan but what our presence there is doing to us."
Too Like a Video Game
There's an eerily unreal quality to the Kandahar shooting spree, as if one is describing a scene from a violent video game. One cannot help but feel that the soldier acted out a cruel fantasy, targeting innocence itself by killing sleeping children.
Video games are popular among soldiers who spend much time inside heavily protected compounds that separate them from the very people they are supposed to protect. Army life, after all, is as much about combat as boredom that must be killed for time to march on. Spending countless hours playing violent video games can easily create a disconnect from the dusty Afghan reality outside, reducing the flesh-and-blood human beings to faceless enemy characters of a virtual game. The compounds' walls of protection become blank canvases of projection, mirroring the hatred, fears and suspicions of both sides.
It is this seclusion that makes it possible for a US soldier to go on a shooting spree, acting as if he were in a video game. It is this divide that makes it possible for an Afghan civilian to view the US troops behind the walls as soulless metallic extensions of a war machinery rather than people.
Like a video game, the enemy can change shape, a caring soldier transforming himself into a killing machine; a charming teenager into a suicide bomber. Such is the truth of a war with no visible front lines: Reality becomes unreal and real people become one-dimensional characters of a tridimensional video game.
The Kandahar rampage is a wake-up call for a return to reality and humanity in this war of machines versus ghosts.
Mission in Flames
SAN FRANCISCO (March 14, 2012) -- After an American soldier went berserk and killed 16 Afghan civilians early Sunday, I got a flurry of calls for comment, as if this outburst broke a mold. Actually it's just the latest in a series of outrages.
In the last year, for example, it was discovered that a murder club formed by American soldiers had been hunting Afghan civilians for sport; NATO helicopters shot dead some boys tending sheep after hovering over them long enough to ascertain what they were; Gen. David Petraeus declared that Afghans incinerate their own children to discredit NATO; American troops circulated video of themselves urinating on Afghans corpses; American troops incinerated Qurans in a trash fire -- and the beat goes on.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have protested President Obama's apology for the Quran burnings. They say it is Afghans who owe the apology, because America has sacrificed much to help Afghanistan and thus deserves gratitude. This narrative is dangerous, because it stokes hatred in our own ranks.
If American soldiers really think they're going to Afghanistan to help, then how must they feel when Afghans start shooting at them, as some have and will? The episodes I've listed suggest what the reaction has been: virulent anti-Afghan hatred spreading within the military. (And a corresponding hatred of Americans flaring on the Afghan side.)
We need to be concerned. It's not just what we're doing to Afghanistan but what our presence there is doing to us. We can't afford to let such hatred grow among us. Even as a practical matter, the American mission in Afghanistan cannot succeed unless we really do help rescue and restore. If we cannot stop burning Qurans, urinating on corpses and massacring civilians, we can't be anything but an army of occupation there, fighting a war to the finish with the Afghan people, a war we cannot win and would gain nothing from even if we did.
Fight the War against Trauma
Mizgon Zahir Darby
Learning that a US soldier went on a murderous rampage, leaving innocent lives in his path of destruction, is difficult to digest as an Afghan American. How could one trained to protect the human rights of women and children take them away? Why is he not called a terrorist?
The only answer I can give is that the man suffered from a mental illness that was either ignored or left untreated.
Are we so in the dark that we cannot openly admit when one of our own has a disease that might have caused him to commit these actions? It's a simple lesson we could have learned from the Afghan people: Trauma breeds trauma.
Having a mental illness is not a justification for the crime committed by this solider, but it should serve as a lesson as to how we proceed to handle the Afghan war. A majority of Afghans within Afghanistan have seen their dead hanging from trees in their front yard. For decades, they have been impoverished and suffering from hunger. The ground on which they step is steeped with blood. The traumas that they have experienced have altered their brains, and the resulting mental maladies have gone ignored. More importantly, the systemic problems causing the traumas have been left untreated.
The United States took the wrong approach going into Afghanistan. More soldiers with guns is not the way to manage terrorism or bring peace. Addressing the mental health of the Afghan population and nation building would have been a better approach.
It is obvious that the United States has overstayed in Afghanistan and that it is time to shift focus. I am more afraid than ever for the safety of US soldiers who are fighting an endless war. The federal government needs to start thinking about how it will treat veterans who are silently scarred by the war so terror cannot follow them back into the United States.
Better yet, they need to start thinking of a war against trauma to beat the war against terrorism.
Tamim Ansary is the author of the upcoming House of Lamentation: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan.
Nushin Arbabzadah is a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA. Raised in Afghanistan, she is a former BBC journalist and regular Guardian commentator.
Mizgon Zahir Darby is the program director of the Afghan Coalition, Afghan Mental Health Project in Alameda County.
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