How many sides does a war have?

There’s a news story making the rounds right now about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who allegedly shot 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood, burned some of their corpses, and is now back in the United States to stand trial. Details are sketchy and rather suspect, but I suppose time will tell. [Early reports based on eyewitness accounts mentioned multiple shooters, and this is a continuing possibility, but for the purposes of this post I will assume just one.]

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the stories, other stories came out saying that Bales, who hadn’t yet been identified, had some kind of head injury recently and may or may not have been suffering from PTSD. Then a story about how he saw a comrade lose a leg the day before the shooting. US officials—anonymously, of course—have said recently that Bales had alcohol and/or domestic issues also clouding his mind, though his attorney denies this.

I have no doubt that a great many of the soldiers who were and are in Afghanistan and Iraq (and probably elsewhere) suffer from PTSD or related conditions. This is supposed to be a mitigating factor, and in fairness if I were a military judge or prosecutor I would have to consider it. Any human being would be put on edge by seeing his comrades wounded or killed. I’ll be surprised as hell if Bales’ probable eventual sentence isn’t considered in view of this fact, assuming he even goes to trial. By all still-developing accounts Robert Bales was not at all the psychopathic type. Something happened to him.

It’s telling that the military judicial system is so quick to use this mitigating factor on only one side. It applies to US forces but it does not apply to combatants on the other side. A US soldier commits some war crime under the influence of combat zone stresses, and they frequently lighten or forgo his punishment. (See these people.) An Afghan who sees his friends or family killed and fights back as a result gets no such consideration. If he is captured, he can expect no sympathy with that kind of defense. If he details to his captors how for ten years he and all his region have been living in fear of being rounded up on the flimsiest pretext to disappear into a CIA black site or be killed, how one day his cousin’s wedding was bombed from the sky, and how afterwards the rescuers were also bombed, and how the next day he picked up a weapon and fired it at the occupying forces because he was so bent by fear and rage—well, get that picture in your mind, and try to imagine how valid his captors will consider that reasoning.

One might object, but we’re at war! We don’t have time for judicial niceties. We didn’t ask individual German soldiers their stories as we were marching into Germany. That’s true. But there were other differences. They fired at Allied troops, sure, but when they were captured they weren’t treated like criminals, they were treated like prisoners of war. They were held until the war was over and then released. Maybe they had killed Allied troops, but that’s part of war. Nowadays, no matter how frequently political leaders insist that “we are at war” we don’t treat the other side like they’re at war. They are terrorists, militants, insurgents, or some other term with criminal connotations. They can be tortured and held indefinitely. There’s no mass release of combatants in the future, and it’s quite clear that many people currently held were not even combatants. The military can never be sure about the people it captures: some armed resisters are let go, and some non-combatants are swept up. The uniform no longer divides the people they’re after and the rest. There is really only one army in this conflict.

This ensures both an endless supply of Afghan civilian hostility and endless fighting. I’m sure some elements of the US elite want exactly this, but most Americans, including most soldiers, do not. For those who’d object that it has to be this way because Afghan combatants can’t be treated like soldiers, I’d say they’re almost there. I’d say they don’t form a traditional military force, and therefore the US government shouldn’t use its traditional military force against them. This is not the 20th century. War as we used to know it is largely a thing of the past. Let it go.

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