The recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians, most of them children, by a US soldier, has brought to light questions about Western intervention; and also about how its armies are trained. The killings are a blow to the US effort in the country, and have added to anti-US sentiment – coming after the Koran burning incident, and a video of Marines urinating on alleged Taliban corpses was posted on the internet. The White House has however said that US objectives will not change.
The suspect (unnamed as no charges have yet been brought) is a married 38-year-old father of two, who was trained as a sniper, and had recently suffered a head injury in Iraq, where he has served three tours, according to the Mirror. Commentators all agree that more must be done to train soldiers; and that deployment of troops must be carefully thought out.
Killing is made familiar. Giles Fraser said in The Guardian that General SLA Marshall, in his book Men Against Fire, claimed that 75 percent of troops in the Second World War weren’t able to fire at the enemy. “The vast majority of soldiers couldn’t actually kill.” Since we tend to have this “inbuilt safety catch,” how is it possible that a US soldier could “calmly shoot 16 civilians dead” in Afghanistan? After Marshall, the armies turned their sights on psychological training. In training, killing is made familiar. We can’t just blame the “individual soldier.” And we can’t make sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. We need to think much, much harder about using soldiers in the first place.
There are other problems, too. It’s happened throughout history, said Max Hastings in The Daily Mail, pointing a the case of an American in World War II who shot dead dozens of Italian prisoners. And it happens at home, as well – look at the massacres by lone males in the US, and even in Britain. There’s always a risk that a highly trained soldier will snap. The other problem is that however hard commanders try to pretend it’s otherwise, many US soldiers in Afghanistan are “viscerally hostile to Muslims,” and regard the locals with “cultural contempt.” But the fact that this particular soldier was a “homicidal loner” won’t “assuage Afghan rage.” When you’re a trained killer “with a gun, it is terrifying to behold the horrors he can unleash.” At least he’ll be properly tried.
Soldiers with morals. And it should serve as due warning for the Pentagon, said the Christian Science Monitor. It needs to be more careful in recruiting: “ethical choices in combat must be learned and reinforced.” It isn’t enough just to complain about civilian deaths. Soldiers must be “trained to act with moral courage in tough situations.”
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