The American staff sergeant who murdered 16 Afghan civilians is provoking questions about how it could have happened. The distinguished military historian Max Hastings provides some much needed perspective by reviewing some of the many military atrocities committed by US and British forces since World War II. He concludes that the potential for this sort of thing is inside all of us. It is just that military training and combat operations can brings it to the surface, especially in counter-insurgency operations.
Personally, I think this atrocity cannot be understood without keeping items like this in mind. Embedded journalist Michael Yon states, “We’ve taken about 200 Coalition casualties that we know of from insider attacks. How many do we not know of?” The thought process of a Coalition soldier is easily imagined: “WTF? I have to risk my life to train these A-holes, and they turn on me the first chance they get?” When Afghan soldiers go postal on their Coalition trainers, trust is not bred.
This does not, of course, excuse what happened (the sergeant apparently saw his comrade get his leg blown off the day before, probably by an IED that he likely believed was laid by the villagers he killed), but it goes a long way to explaining it.
War puts men under incredible stress but conventional war - though much deadlier than guerrilla war – has the advantage of moral simplicity: the enemy is over there; we must kill them any way we can; and that’s that. The only time when this moral structure is conflicted are those rare occasions when prisoners are taken. In counterinsurgency operations, soldiers face severe moral conflicts every day. This is only exacerbated by Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s restricted rules of engagement. I believe the psychological stress it induces (trying to help a group of people while locked in combat with their kinfolk) is underappreciated. When morality is simple, people cope with stress better. When it is complicated, morality is not the same source of strength. As a result, some solders snap.
Perhaps counterinsurgency just asks too much from our soldiers (at least those who aren’t in special forces).
For some time, I have championed an alternate strategy for Afghanistan (here, here and here). Don’t nation-build in a country where none existed before. Instead, work with the existing tribal structure: shower favours on friendly tribes and treat uncooperative tribes as the enemy. In this way, the enemy is clear to everybody and most of the fighting is done by other Afghans, who fight for reasons they understand. By attempting to woo Afghans with civil aid, we end up bribing enemies while neglecting friends. We present the Afghans a perverse incentive structure: fight us and get all the goodies (and the apologies). All we really want is for their territories to not be terrorist havens. Tell them that if they manage that, we will leave them alone and give them military aid (which they prize much more highly than schools and roads). Fail to do that, and we will hammer you - while aiding your ancient blood enemies.
I think such a mission would be more understandable to the Afghans and our solders as well.