Saturday, May 7, 2011

Atrocities and Our Troops

(The Associated press) MAJAH, Afghanistan - Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah are using civilians as human shields, firing from compounds where U.S. and Afghan forces can clearly see women and children on rooftops or in windows. The intermingling of fighters and civilians has been confirmed by Associated Press journalists. It is part of a Taliban effort to exploit strict NATO rules against endangering innocent lives to impede the allied advance through the town in Helmand province, 610 km southwest of Kabul. (Thursday Feb 18, 2010)

There were a half dozen of us nice middle-aged men and women in the Good Earth organic coffee house. My associates tended to be into health food, spirituality and new age. Like I said, nice people. The topic changed to speculation as to whether our young people in Afghanistan, under the stress of combat, were resorting to atrocities and massacres. Back when my peers were young they had all had long hair. Among us only I had the relevant background or book learning. Unfortunately I floundered. I can think and express things so much better when I have a long time to do an essay. So here goes.

We have all read of how Saddam Hussein and his sons, if not the Iraqis, if not the Muslims, believe in using people as human shields. Perhaps the Taliban, too, believe in shields and collateral damage. We know that our boys, in contrast, believe in fairness and the Geneva Convention. And when under stress, our boys can be furious at unfair lawbreakers. They may lash out and—...I can sympathize. My coffee friends, I am pleased to say, also sympathized. They did not try to avoid the issue and just abandon our young people to their plight. As a poet once said, "War is too important to leave to the generals."

(Police action)

I know this topic isn't pleasant. I would ask you to take a deep breath and read, but don't answer, the following question: what if the Taliban put their relatives in a longhouse with loopholes and then fired on passing NATO troops? OK, breathe. Obviously the Taliban won't risk their own relatives, right? ...It would be easier to approach this topic with the emotional distance provided by time... I am thinking of the UN "police action," also called the Korean war. I still remember the black and white footage of the UN soldiers having checkpoints for the refugee columns. The troops resorted to holding up their big round land mine detectors over baby carriages. The communists, you see, believed it was OK to hide guns and bombs under a baby's swaddling clothes.

And what if you found the reds opening fire on you from within the crowd? (This happened.) During the safety of peacetime a police officer might sacrifice his life, might take a bullet for the public. During wartime, though, the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln applies. He said, "You can sacrifice a limb to save a life, but you cannot sacrifice a life for a limb." If soldiers are needed then the actual life, the very existence, of the nation is at stake. So the soldiers must not sacrifice themselves: they must return fire. They do so according to their military doctrine of minimum force.

This doctrine mandates things like firing single shots, if that will do, rather than firing on full automatic. A peacetime equivalent, I suppose, would be the homeowner who can legally stab a home invader to death, provided he uses the minimum force needed to defend himself. It's common sense.

(First Point)

Soldiers take their military manual seriously. They are drilled and trained and practiced and indoctrinated with a sense of professionalism... until they can perform their duties, such as using minimum force, even when under stress, with proud self-discipline. This is a part of the reason why officers usually have to spend years at military college before they are given their first command. You and I, of course, lack this professionalism. If we had a job overseas as, say, civilian security guards and if we heard a single round go past, then we might save our own skins by blasting back on full auto with everything we had. However, soldiers are not like me and you...

So my first point is that soldiers take pride in doing the right thing. (Incidentally, soldiers learn to react to "effective fire" not to stray single rounds.)

For my second point, I would try again for emotional distance. As a boy I read a rousing story, in a British special Children's Reader's Digest, called They Remembered the "Birkenhead Drill." When a passenger steamer, the HMS Birkenhead, was sinking, the civilian adult men were lined up on deck and they stayed there, for as long as it took, until their women and children boarded the boats. Then it would be their turn, if still possible, to join in whatever life boat space might be left. I forget how fast the water rose, or how many men died. If just one man in the line up had bolted it would surely have started a panic. But no man broke ranks.... These days, to be sure, I talk like a timid middle-aged man, but I had I been on a sinking ship the "remember the Birkenhead" reflex would have hit me. I too would have sucked in my gut and tried to be brave like everyone else.

I saw the RMS Titanic exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. When that ship was first sinking, after that bump in the night, they didn't know how bad it was. And so some men innocently joined the boats. In later years one or more were to commit suicide: they could never outlive the shame. (Incidentally, when the "unsinkable Molly Brown" asked for a brawny crewman to join her boat as an oarsman he first got written permission from the captain, in order to be able to prove afterwards he wasn't a coward) So far, so good.

But recently, when a large ferry sank? Off the roadless coast to Alaska? I imagine the passengers, husbands and wives, boarded the lifeboats two by two—and this was morally right. Partly because, in practical terms, there were ample lifeboats, and partly because women, for practical reasons, now need less protecting: they don't often die in childbirth, and they do have equal rights. Practicality is the horse, morality is the cart.


Some years ago, back before 9/11, I flew to visit my brother who lived in Fort Lauderdale. If my jet had been hijacked to Cuba I would have sat with folded hands: my brother might have despised me had I tried to be a hero. It might have been morally wrong to risk my fellow passengers. But suppose I flew on flight 93 on that day of infamy? After the first three jets had crashed it was no longer practical to be passive; now my brother would surely despise me if I didn't risk everything and say, "Let's roll!" and go down fighting. Again, morality follows after the horse.

A digression...Here is a joke from childhood:

On the Los Angeles to New York flight a man goes into the cockpit. He pulls out a knife and says, "This plane is going to New York!"

"But sir-"

"This plane is going to New York!"

"But sir, we always go to New York. This is the LA to New York flight."

"Don't give me that! The last three times I was on this plane we went to Cuba!"

(Second Point)

And now our sons and daughters, reservists and regulars, are fighting to build a new Afghanistan. I propose a not-too-scary thought experiment. Although the Afghan economy surely doesn't allow for animal shelters, lets suppose: The Taliban have sneaked into the dog shelter; they have filled sandbags, cut loopholes, and have opened fire on our NATO sons. Now what? Despite some doubt and indecision, of perhaps only a few milliseconds, (those poor dogs!) the young men would surely return fire. The second time it would be easier to react properly. And then the next morning in the mess tent our young reservist daughters, who have left their own dogs safely back at home with their parents, would be having breakfast. They would nod solemnly to each other and agree it is altogether fitting and proper for the boys to return fire... A new horse—innocent dogs as shields—has meant a new cart: returning fire even unto the death of "man's best friend."

My second point, therefore, is that our children overseas would be trying to be as moral as they could be, redefining morality as needed, in order to be as civilized as possible.

Now I should probably "digress" to discuss South Vietnam. After all, my grizzled longhaired peers and I had our formative years during the brief life of that republic. It was hard for the young troops back then to understand that war, and it was hard for them to bear how their own civilian peers hated them and spit on them: the average age was 19 as compared to my father's war where the average age, for a G.I. Joe, was 26. (Same as my university graduating class.) But wait—it wasn't a "war;" it was officially a "conflict." Are you confused? So were the young men. The conflict was supposedly real important but... troops in Germany felt no urgency, the national guard was never called up and the occupation troops in Japan continued to eat ice cream and play baseball. Are you frustrated? So were the troops. And let's not even begin to discuss feeling stabbed-in-the-back by the people they were trying to save...

Do you know the term "regimental family?" This comforting phrase was used a lot during a recent military funeral in my hometown. The funeral, let me say for the record, was for a young hero killed in action in Afghanistan. Corporal Nathan Hornburg. My coffee buddies had all attended, had all known his family. In contrast, sadly, the poor boys in Nam scarcely had the phrase regimental family in their vocabulary. The controversial "Vietnam year" meant the soldiers were rotated in and out like spare parts without a soul, while their peers were also coming and going, "new guys" and "short timers," while they all knew—they knew!—that the whole effort was a fiasco, from top to bottom, from the White house down to the ignorant citizens on main street U.S.A. The boys would not have known it at the time but... they were all terribly lonely... There is a reason why Nam vets don't have reunions.

(Third point)

The military climate in Afghanistan, in contrast, is much less conducive to war crimes. My third point is that our troops have healthy unit cohesiveness. It would never occur to young volunteers (not conscripts, not draftees) to refer to their middle-aged leaders as "lifers." Not like in Nam, not at all.

Here at home nearly everyone my age knows of a young slacker, call him LeFool, who lives in his mother's basement and won't get a job. You might imagine LeFool getting into the army and behaving inappropriatly, doing such things as brandishing his rifle in the air like foreigners do on TV, or perhaps, while on patrol on a clear day, with no Taliban in sight, suddenly shooting a round into the wall of an animal shelter just because it "felt good." Won't happen. No way. Better to imagine LeFool with peer pressure, in a warm noisy regimental family, which allows no space for "hiding in the basement." His peers will have the work ethic and the sense of purpose that comes only from high standards. If LeFool were allowed to slack off do do what "feels good" then he would be of no use: neither to the military nor to himself. Long before his character declined to the point of rudely brandishing or shooting into a wall he would have revealed his inner weakness by how he took care of his personal gear and group shared equipment. A hawk-eyed corporal would have intervened in time. The same principle applies to sailors and ground crew.

I am reminded of how, early in world war II, General Patton ran a vast desert training base in Nevada. Today I have a brother living in Las Vegas, but at the time, before air conditioning, Vegas was still a town. Patton wanted his men to feel pride and determination: to be, in other words, soldiers between their ears. He ordered that if any man, after leaving base, was found in town, by the military police patrol, with his necktie undone... then his company commander would have to write a letter to Patton to explain why. If it happened twice then the officer would have to resign. No one ever had to.

I mentioned the sharp eyes of the corporal. The armed forces has a series of such checks, right up to the Inspector General. If such a general, during an inspection visit, found the troops dressed like pirates with their unit equipment dirty and not oiled, then surely all the officers would be instantly replaced. I know of no such case; I say this only as a thought experiment. I do know of a tank regiment in world war II, with grave morale problems, that, understandably, had things like rusty side arms...They ended up getting the great honor of a presidential unit citation. Their change in outlook came, understandably, when they were assured that they would indeed be allowed to go overseas to fight. (Yes!) These were "Eleanor's (Roosevelt) troops." African-Americans.

(Dressing for dinner)

I could have reminded my coffee friends of how the Duke of Wellington said the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (boarding school). I could have called their attention to how colonial administrators in rotting remote jungle outposts would insist on always formally dressing for dinner, always taking down the flag before sunset. "The sun never sets on the Union Jack" we said. These things matter.

I could have told them how an army base is like a God-fearing small prairie town, complete with the three Ps: the post office, the police and the protestant chaplain. On that base, during rare and hallowed evenings, the men would put on their dress uniforms, get out the old Boer war candlesticks, and the chaplain would say grace. The first toast would always be to the queen. They would, during that toast, be reaffirming the values of civilization.

Next day, in broad daylight, it is the entire base that packs up big tents to go overseas. And so when tired dusty troops are returning from an Afghanistan patrol at sunset... they are returning through the gate to the three Ps and civilization. There can be no war crimes, not when such men and women, determined and proud, hold their ground.

Our sons and daughters overseas are motivated. They don't feel forgotten or hated by their peers, not when they are visited by NHL players and there is a civilian staffed Tim Hortons for donuts. They have unit morale. When they return home, those who survive, they will probably spend less time down in the basement with LeFool and more time up in the kitchen with us grownups. And we will be proud of them.

God save the queen.

Sean Crawford

on the prairie, summer of 2009.15

Note: For more on what you can do, see my essay of April 24 entitled "Are Yankees Stupid?"

Footnote: Patton told his officers of how the American colonists, lacking weapons, at first resorted to rolling logs downhill against the Redcoats. In Starship Troopers by R. A. Heinlein the equivalent of Patton's "necktie," for teaching determination, is when the recruits, who would normaly have ample ray guns and atomic grenades, are forced to practise throwing a mere knife against a straw "sentry." A lack of weapons is no excuse to quit. When I had no shovel I dug with my helmet...

Funny footnote:
After the general says a soldier can "take this shovel..."

Young officer: Uh, Sir, that's an entrenching tool.

General: I'm a general; I can call a shovel a shovel.

(from a half forgotten novel by, I think, Philipe Jose Farmer)

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