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Palaima: Shootings in Afghanistan have roots in our history
Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
Austin American-Statesman Monday, March 19, 2012
If you live long enough, one sure fact of life is that history will repeat itself and pose questions about who we are and try to be as civilized human beings.
Earlier this month, in southern Afghanistan, a 38-year-old U.S. sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq, slipped off base and into two villages and killed at least 16 fellow human beings in three homes. Among the dead were nine children and three women. He set 11 bodies on fire. He apparently acted alone and surrendered upon returning to his base.
Reactions bring a sense of déjà vu to anyone familiar with the wars American soldiers have fought in the past 50 years. Even guarded official responses are in their own ways sincere and true.
A mother is reported to have opened the flowered blanket in which her 2-year-old daughter's dead body was wrapped and asked, "Was this child Taliban?" Of course, she wasn't. The woman's daughter's death is unholy. It offends our moral and religious codes, our deep-rooted instincts to protect the young and innocent.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the killings were "acts of terror and unforgivable." Of course, they look like acts of terror to people who know firsthand what terrible acts terrorists commit. Forgiveness should be sought from the hearts of those who loved the victims.
President Barack Obama issued a statement that mostly rings true, "This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the people of the United States has for the people of Afghanistan."
Of course, mass killing of defenseless innocents by an experienced soldier is beyond tragedy.
There is no question that American soldiers are well-trained and learn rules of engagement to follow even in environments where the enemy is hard to identify. Most Americans do not lack respect for the people of Afghanistan, even if few of us have personal ties with Afghans or can even locate their country on a map.
The deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, declared, "I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts." He probably cannot. But I bet he could begin a list of factors that would lead an experienced soldier, a married father of two, to do what he did on that morning.
Online, opinions are varied and less guarded, as we also might expect. Many see the killings as understandable, though not condonable - a product of the stresses our volunteer soldiers now face in the formally undeclared wars we are now fighting. They point out that our soldiers serve too many tours of duty and that veteran suicides have reached record rates. They call for us to pull our troops out of Afghanistan and not send them anywhere else. They wonder how soldiers operating under constant strain can hold themselves together while overseas and return as psychologically healthy human beings.
One spouse of a Special Forces veteran writes eloquently that this kind of brutal murder "is not what (Special Forces) soldiers are trained to do. The Special Forces code is 'free the oppressed' and that is what they are trying to do. The danger that they put themselves in to bring freedom for these people."
Indeed, Obama stresses, "In no way is this representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women have made in Afghanistan."
Finally, Obama was asked point-blank whether this incident in Afghanistan was comparable to the My Lai massacre that took place, uncannily, five calendar days later, March 16, 1968. He dismissed the comparison, saying in Afghanistan "you had a lone gunman who acted on his own." But we should remember that, controversially, only Lt. William J. Calley was convicted on the charge that he did "with premeditation murder Oriental human beings, whose names and sex are unknown, by shooting them with a rifle." Yet more than 500 women, children and old men were killed on that single day.
Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the My Lai story in November 1969, will deliver a public lecture on Thursday at the University of Texas.
Make an effort to come to listen to what he thinks about the history he has lived through and sees now. History, unfortunately, will just not go away.
Palaima is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seymour Hersh speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday at UT's AT&T conference center. Information: www.utexas.edu/know/events.
The initial charge against Calley as reported by Mr. Hersh was as reported here with the total number dead adding up to 109.
In the event, Calley was charged with four specifications alleging premeditated murder in violation of Article 118 of Uniform Code of Military Justice:
Art. 118. Murder
Any person subject to this chapter who without justification or excuse, unlawfully kills a human being when he-- 1) has a premeditated design to kill; 2) intends to kill or inflict great bodily harm; 3) is engaged in an act which is inherently dangerous to others and evinces a wanton disregard of human life; or 4) is engaged in perpetration or attempted perpetration of burglary, sodomy, rape, robbery, or aggravated arson; is guilty of murder, and shall suffer such punishment as a court-martial trial may direct.
Specification 1: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr. ...did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder an unknown number, not less than thirty, Oriental human beings, males and females of various ages, whose names are unknown, occupants of the village of My Lai 4, by means of shooting them with a rifle.
Specification 2: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr...did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder an unknown number, not less than seventy, Oriental human beings, males and females of various ages, whose names are unknown, occupants of the village of My Lai 4, by means of shooting them with a rifle.
Specification 3: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr...did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder one Oriental male human being, whose name and age is unknown, by shooting him with a rifle.
Specification 4: In that First Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr...did, at My Lai 4, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of South Viet-Nam, on or about 16 March 1968, with premeditation, murder one Oriental human being, an occupant of the village of My Lai 4, approximately two years old, by shooting him with a rifle.
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