It was Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz who best encapsulated the moral paradoxes of modern warfare and the equivocal relationship between the foreign battlefield and the standards of home: “We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”
A similarly disturbing insight is provided by Neil Shea in his article in The American Scholar “Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace”.
Shea recounts the anxious time he spent embedded with an unspecified US unit clearing Taliban insurgents in central Afghanistan. No stranger to the country or combat operations, Shea’s article is not about the fear of battle, but rather the fear of the men he was with, the self-defeating manner in which they behaved, and the foreboding sense of what sort of internal damage they would carry with them when they re-entered the civilian world.
Some of these men, in Apocalypse Now terms, had “gotten out of the boat”. Under the control of an Ahab-like NCO, they had begun to behave in an obscenely brutal manner that was anything but winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The aggression that they had been trained to mete out was overwhelming them and they had reached the absurd situation of being ‘too violent’ to be effective in their mission.
“Of course, we require our fighters to be ready hurricanes, on-call combat machines,” says Shea. “We want them held easily in check, and we expect light-switch control over their aggression. Yet the Afghan war no longer relies so much on combat. The mission is nuanced, and future success, even sane withdrawal, demands Afghan cooperation. Soldiers like (the NCO), so barely restrained, their switches unreliable after years of war, undermine this. But we have no good method for dealing with men who grow too dangerous. We vaguely hope their anger does not spill over, or come home. It is not simple.”
This sort of scenario had its most recent tragedy last month when an American serviceman went rogue and murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar. But there have been other instances, such as the Mahmudiyah killings in Iraq and an increasing rate of domestic murders carried out by returning American veterans. Atop this there is an astonishing rate of suicide amongst veterans; some figures putting it at about 18 per day.
Kurtz at least stayed up the river, but we want our own personnel to come home. The question is whether our society is prepared to help them deal with their own long-term consequences of the things we’ve been asking them to do.
And that includes examining why we were asking them to do it in the first place.