I know that those of us who have not been in combat for extended periods don’t understand the level of moral, emotional and physical stresses that those who fight face. So I am going to be very careful in this post not to speculate about the personal factors the led an American soldier to kill numerous Afghan civilians for no apparent reason on Sunday morning. But I think I am qualified to comment on the political aspects.
Until very recently, armies had a highly focused objective: to destroy enemy forces, to conquer and hold territory, and to defend ‘friendly’ territory and peoples against opposing armies.
Treatment of noncombatants has always been a secondary concern, varying over the centuries from the massacre of enemy men and enslavement of women and children common in ancient times, to what we hope is the more civilized behavior of Western armies today.
When an enemy army was defeated in the past, the winners brought about the political consequences that they desired, annexing territory or establishing a new regime, moving populations, exacting tribute, killing or imprisoning the former ruling groups, etc. These changes were enforced by violence or threat of violence. Since very few governments were democratic, the civilians involved could only hope that the new monarchy or dictatorship would be more benign than the previous one.
This pattern was followed in WWII, with the occupation of Germany, Japan and the Warsaw pact nations an example of the imposition of new regimes (the fact that the Western bloc managed to extricate itself peacefully from its occupations doesn’t change their essentially coercive nature).
More recently, a new paradigm is emerging, particularly in the case of the US: military forces are sent to a country which is ‘misbehaving’ in some way — in Vietnam, threatening to join the Soviet bloc; in Afghanistan, sheltering terrorist militias.* The objective of the military is to suppress the forces that are opposed to our goals, while winning the support of uncommitted groups.
Unfortunately these fundamentally contradictory goals — killing and making friends — place a huge burden on our soldiers. In order to stay alive, they must be killers when they face the enemy. Then they are expected to return to base and become Peace Corps volunteers.
This is exacerbated by the fact that these ‘police actions’ are by nature insurgencies without front lines. So the soldier never knows which form of behavior is called for.
And it gets even worse than this: while our troops are being trained in ‘cultural sensitivity’ in order to become capable of making friends with the ones who are supposedly on our side, we are facing Middle Eastern honor-shame cultures in which such ‘sensitivity’ appears as weakness and stupidity, leading to even more hatred and violence.
The icing on the cake is that our enemies understand all this, while we apparently don’t. So of course the accidental burning of Qurans or a massacre of civilians — which is standard operating procedure in the Muslim Middle East, by the way — provokes huge outbursts of rage. So we apologize, which provokes even more rage.
[Aside: No, I don't condone massacres, and I don't think that what the so-far-unnamed US soldier did is acceptable. But when Muslims kill Muslims, as they are doing in large numbers every day in Syria, Iraq and other places, the rage in the Muslim world is muted.
The principle is the same in Gaza, where Palestinian terrorists are applauded for trying to commit mass murder of Jews, but when those same terrorists are killed by the IDF, Egyptians are furious. Christians, Jews and other infidels are not allowed to kill Muslims -- it turns their world order upside down.]
I think we in the West need to understand that we cannot expect our armies to both fight and act as social workers, especially in the Middle East.
Where there is an objective that can be achieved by military force, we must apply that force as aggressively as possible, and minimize contact between our soldiers and civilians. Compare the first three weeks of the invasion of Iraq with the other nine years of our involvement there.
But if we want to translate military victories into political gains, then we must be prepared to follow up by behaving as conquerors, not as helpers or allies. If we are not able to do this, then probably we don’t have a good reason for military action in the first place.
* The case of Iraq is more complicated, but I believe it fits the paradigm.