It seems a peculiarly American destiny, hovering over the heads of this nation and its people, to keep on reading, in the morning papers, news paragraphs like the following:
Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.
A military presence in a foreign land; a seemingly endless, intractable, formless conflict; a political establishment confused about war objectives, tactics, and strategy; military and political commanders at loggerheads; the calculus of troop withdrawal, as always, juggling with face-saving devices as the original provenance of war’s declaration and continued execution fades into a remote past; these are all familiar components of wars persecuted overseas.
And now, it seems, another more gruesomely familiar piece can be fitted into this emerging puzzle: the cold-massacre of innocents, carried out by a member of the military. US Army Sergeant X (we do not know his name as yet), coldly, deliberately, kills sixteen civilians in Panjwai District in the province of Kandahar. He goes on a deadly walkabout a mile from base, hunting door to door for prey, breaking in to kill at three separate locations. At the end, he collects the bodies of eleven victims, which include four girls, and cremates them.
Assessment of Sergeant X as psychopathic is likely; he is in custody and presumably, the wheels of justice, military and civil will now grind to dispense the appropriate punishment. Well, one can hope; let us not forget that the gentleman whose name sprang to some folks’ lips when they first heard the news of the Panjwai massacre, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted, found guilty of killing twenty-two villagers, given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.
But the policies, mechanisms, and machinery, both political and military that brought Sergeant X to Panjwai, that kept him there, along with thousands of other US troops (and their Afghan henchmen) will not be on trial along with him. Sergeant X will be tried as isolated singularity, as exception, the lens narrowly focused on him and his deeds. Synoptic perspectives on his presence in the midst of his victims will be in short supply; laser-like precision of diagnosis and prescription, discarding broader political views, will be much more popular.
Of course, what makes Panjwai genuinely tragic is that it was foretold: dirty wars like Afghanistan inevitably dehumanize and produce these moral catastrophes. The question was when, how often, where; the genuine curiosity was only directed, perhaps, at the eventual body count. Sergeant X has had a small, walk-on part to play; he has performed it with gruesome efficiency. The rest of the accompanying charade can now be kicked off.