Maj. Danny SJURSEN
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Everyone who enters the gate at West Point Military Academy must memorize and recite these words on their first day. Failure to follow that protocol, including the “nontoleration clause,” can mean expulsion. Even insufficient adherence to the spirit of said value system can earn one pariah status at the academy. Those who graduate after four years of academics, military training and “character-building” are expected to live by and imbue in their fellow soldiers the seven Army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. In most official documents, these terms are literally capitalized.
It’s an old system, one that both senior leaders and most junior officers have eagerly preserved. Yet in recent decades, the purportedly unstoppable force of military ethics has met a seemingly immovable object in the form of an entrenched Afghan child-rape culture. Because in that morally trying case, in which senior “leaders of character” regularly told their troopers to ignore the local practice (and occasionally punished those who refused), the U.S. military chose tactical expedience (or desperation) over virtue. And while what unfolded may not technically qualify as a violation of the honor code, tolerance of rape has nonetheless brought disgrace upon the entire U.S. military.
The American-Afghan child sex scandal was briefly a major story in 2015, and it popped up periodically in the mainstream media through 2018. But if this story is slightly dated, it’s still worth remembering that the practice in rural Afghanistan has been an open secret among U.S. soldiers for decades. Heck, I myself was shamelessly invited by local village elders to such a hashish-smoke-filled bacha bazi party just weeks into my deployment back in 2011 (I politely passed). So well-known was this not-so-secret rape culture that soldiers regularly joked about their own (usually tangential) introduction to its existence.
It’s a weighty question that I’m asking, with few easy answers. But it seems to me that the nation’s willingness to disregard rampant rape overseas, as well as our own attempts to cover the whole thing up, ought to have ranked as a national scandal of the first order. That it didn’t raises serious questions about the foundation and execution of America’s ongoing wars of “freedom advancement.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that it become U.S. policy to deploy its military anywhere and everywhere another society’s sexual practices don’t jibe with our own, even when they are, by most any measure, deplorable. No matter our intentions, to do so would betray both a demigod-level national ego and smack of the presumptive cultural supremacy that many progressives rightly abhor.
As a practical matter, policing global bad behavior has, historically, proven untenable, unwinnable and, frankly, unaffordable. While traversing the earth to stamp out such deeply unsettling local customs as “honor” killings, state executions of accused female adulterers, and female genital mutilation might feel ethical, it’s certainly not efficacious. Such well-intentioned transnational crusading would get awkward fast, placing Washington at odds with ostensibly key regional allies, either their governments or large segments of their societies.
Pakistan, which has an estimated 1,000 honor killings annually, Saudi Arabia, which still beheads, crucifies or stones women to death for adultery, witchcraft and sorcery, and Egypt, home of Donald Trump’s favorite dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, where 91% of females aged 15 to 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation, are just a few of the countries on this list. And when was the last time Washington let a little bad behavior by one of “our” autocrats get in the way of its perceived national economic or geopolitical interests?
The blindfold Uncle Sam has donned for decades in Afghanistan raises a question whose answer is so discomfiting and consequential that it should shake the American warfare state to its core: What can be said about a nation that invaded broad swaths of the world to promote a “Freedom Agenda” while instructing its soldiers to tolerate abuse on a massive scale?
I offer two conclusions: The architects of these ongoing wars never meant what they said about freedom, liberty and democracy; and the actual process of this cynical crusading has proven messy at best and hopeless at worst.
Not to give him a pass by any means, but George W. Bush just might have believed his own propaganda. He was one of America’s very worst presidents, responsible for the deaths of perhaps 1 million people. But in hindsight, I think the guy was more sincere than his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Call me a traitor to my political class, but he might even have been more of a true believer than his successor, Barack Obama.
That said, it seems clear that Bush’s foreign policy (and all recent administrations’ overseas agendas, to one extent or another) was dominated by petty Pentagon brass, defense corporation money men and elite national security advisers — in W’s case, a triumvirate brain trust of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. Together, these groups represent the three Bs — the brains, brawn and billions behind systemic American militarism.
During the Bush years, the three Bs largely worked in the shadows, never buying that freedom malarkey for a second. For these true movers and shakers, this rhetoric provided a polite veneer for a brutal imperial project and a means to an end. Sentimentality might have suited their boss, but these players prayed at the rather secular pulpit of power. It should have been obvious from the start that the “war on terror” was always about profits over purity. Just five days after 9/11, Cheney told us on live TV that to win the not-yet-begun military campaign ahead, the U.S. would “have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.”
As the wars unfolded over the next 20-some years, the executive branch called all the plays, with a clutch assist from the K Street lobbying industry. Congress, the courts and cable TV were reduced to glorified observers, hardly more engaged than a cowed common citizenry.
Each faction had something to gain from recharged imperialism. The brains got to play God and fulfill their twisted, hegemonic dreams to shape the world, all while a sizable evangelical crowd believed the rapture was at hand. Just across the Potomac in Arlington, the brawn got to advance its military priorities, its officers and generals walking freely through the revolving door separating the Pentagon from K Street lobbying firms. As for the billions, these merchants of death have seen their profits soar. No doubt they consider them a fair fee for services rendered to Team Caesar back on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that our hegemonic mission would prove messy, if not completely hopeless. Power-projection and its requisite prolonged military occupations are difficult and morally murky by their very nature. The brawn ought to have grasped this much implicitly. Whether these generals did or even cared are different matters altogether.
In military schools from West Point to the United States Aermy Command and General Staff College to the United States Army War College, students are all but taught to worship at the altar of Carl von Clausewitz, and with good reason. Having observed the horrors of combat in the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian veteran-turned-military strategist declared existing martial theories formulaic, deductive and utterly inadequate. He concluded that war was chaos, best characterized by friction, fallibility and uncertainty (it was von Clausewitz who coined the phrase “fog of war”). All attempts to fully control combat — the perennial desire of the brains — ultimately leads to naught but frustration and failure.
Regarding America’s still-trucking freedom agenda that isn’t, von Clausewitz might caution: Be careful what you start; you never know what might unfold, or what new, unforeseen problems your actions might induce. Which brings us to Afghanistan. The child-rape epidemic may be the most nauseating and frankly absurd Frankenstein’s monster of unforeseen quandaries that our foreign policy has yet produced. In Clausewitzian terms, it poses an ethical friction, a moral fog of war.
Because invasions and occupations are inherently messy, the brains have created for the brawn a strategic Catch 22: It can look the other way so as not to alienate prominent Afghan village elders and thereby drive them into the Taliban’s welcoming arms, or it can try to live up to its mission’s lofty rhetoric. In hindsight, expecting all of these armed Boy Scouts to look the other way was always a pipe dream.
If #MeToo taught us anything, it’s that no secret stays in the shadows forever. Cover-ups are eventually exposed; societal blindfolds inevitably slide off. When punishments were meted out to a handful of soldiers who refused to “tolerate” rape, briefly capturing the attention of the media, it was the brawn that was left holding the proverbial bag. The brains, ironically, played dumb and reverted to the tried-and-true excuse that they just defer to the generals on the ground. The billionaires were nowhere to be found. If pressed, their polished PR men stuck to the industry’s stock answer: “We just provide the beans and the bullets — don’t look at us!”
So the story came and went, as all war-related news does these days. Even I shrugged at the time, busy with other research subjects and thinking, regrettably, “What else is new?” What coverage the scandal did get was, predictably, surface-level and mainly missed the relevant point. Discussion centered on what exactly the U.S. military policy toward the repulsive local practice should be, with the usual soap opera-style questions about who was and/or should have been punished. There seemed to be little appetite to reflect on what the scandal suggested about the whole forever-war enterprise, even as the #MeToo movement has demanded we reconsider our patriarchal institutions at home.
We shouldn’t be surprised. For going on two decades, Americans have remained impassive as Uncle Sam and its putative allies have pillaged the region. What’s another human travesty?