The Real Difference

The Real Difference

On Sunday, March 11, 2012, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, age 38, left his base in the Kandahar district of Panjwai in Afghanistan, a district said to be “volatile,” and walked to the nearby village, where he went house to house, shooting and killing 16 people.  The news organizations have been careful to mention that most of these victims were women and children, which everyone agrees makes the crime particularly shocking and unseemly.  It has been reported that the previous day, Sergeant Bales had witnessed a fellow soldier get a leg blown off by a buried landmine.  We have also learned that, though this was Bales’ first deployment to Afghanistan, it was his third deployment to a war zone; he had already served three tours in Iraq, where he not only witnessed a good deal of brutality but fell victim to it himself, on more than one occasion.  These multiple deployments have been described as “not unusual.” He has received a number of medals for his service.  Apparently, he fully believed in what he was doing, for he is quoted as having once said that there is a “real difference between being an American as opposed to being the bad guy.”

While it would be interesting to find out more about what he meant by that, he is not likely to be given the opportunity to explain his statement, and he may never explain why he killed those 16 Afghan civilians.  He may not be able to explain that to himself, let alone to others, but even if he could, the gears of justice, military and otherwise, have already turned against him.  He has made himself into a political situation, and it is the needs of the political system that will dictate the story that gets told.  That story will be fabricated in such a way as to make his actions appear to be “an isolated incident” and “an individual act,” and therefore to distance the rest of us from moral responsibility for his crime, or more importantly, for creating the conditions that made his crime possible.  In other words, that story will be a confirmation of Bales’ belief that there is a real difference between being an American and being a bad guy.  By focusing on Bales the individual, and through a legal strategy declaring him, now, not genuinely American, not a true example of American ideals, we can avoid confronting Army Staff Sergeant Bales, the soldier rigorously trained to kill people who are not Americans, people who do not love nor desire to imitate our way of life, people who do not love democracy and capitalism, but who in fact hate us and our values, and who are therefore by definition bad guys.  A guilty man makes the perfect scapegoat.

The number of Afghans killed by America now numbers well over 10,000; this figure naturally does not include the numbers of refugees and people who have died from attendant causes such as starvation or disease.  In 2008, we killed an entire wedding party, as reported in the Guardian in these stark words:  “A US air strike killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were travelling to a wedding in Afghanistan  .  .  . The bride was among the dead.”   That’s 25 more than Bales killed this recent Sunday.  I do not think the dead bride would make a distinction between being collateral damage and being murdered.   Nor, probably, would the groom.  That is a legal distinction that only a powerful military nation can make.

And that is the fact that may explain why Afghanistan has been so difficult to pacify and control, and why the Iraq war dragged on so long, and why other wars and skirmishes, such as the Vietnam War, have not turned out as predicted.  To people whose homeland has been contested by empires for centuries, or whose countries are figments of the colonial imagination, all those bodies are their wives and children, their husbands and cousins, and they are not likely to buy the idea that a daughter’s or a son’s death is a reasonable price to pay for the purposes of a superpower located on the other side of the planet.

For more on traumatic brain injury, click here for a NYT article.

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