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Look at the smiles, but notice the gun. (Photo: DoD/ Photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson)

The Moral Rabbit Hole

Robert C. Koehler

And down the moral rabbit hole we go.

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. soldiers still fighting the war in Afghanistan — 14 years on — are under orders to be “culturally sensitive” regarding different attitudes among our Afghan allies about, uh . . . the sexual abuse of children.

One officer was relieved of his command several years ago, the Times informed us, because he punched out an Afghan militia commander “for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.” And in 2012, three Marines were shot and killed at a U.S. base in Helmand Province by a 17-year-old Afghan “tea boy” who may also have been the sex slave of a warlord ally stationed there — possibly in retaliation for the Marines’ failure to intervene in the situation. The father of one of the murdered Marines said that officers had told his son “to look the other way” regarding child rape “because it’s their culture.”

Oh, the sensitivity!

Shane Harris, writing a few days later in The Daily Beast, expanded on the moral helplessness of the American invaders in such matters: “A 45-minute scripted presentation given to Marines as part of their pre-deployment process . . . explains that laws and norms about sexual relations vary from country to country, and that in Afghanistan in particular, sexual assault is a ‘cultural’ issue, and not a purely legal one,” he wrote.

“. . . The training guide supports allegations by Marines and Army soldiers in recent days that they’ve been told not to intervene to prevent sexual assault in Afghanistan, including the rape and sexual enslavement of children on U.S. bases.”

Where does one start deconstructing the moral weirdness of all this? The stories don’t address the American invasion itself, which has shattered Afghanistan and created infinitely more harm than it has eradicated. Instead, we’re left seething at the scapegoat du jour: anonymous higher-ups, who are imposing strategically mandated directives on our boys on the ground: Pedophile warlords are our partners in fighting the Taliban. Don’t look too closely at their leisure activities.

In the Times story, in particular, a sense of American innocence permeates the situation. Our soldiers know better and want to do the right thing — impose decent values on a sleazy, immoral culture — but despite being armed to the teeth, they can’t force our allies to behave like good Americans. The real villain here, if we look no deeper than the Times chooses to, is political correctness.

In point of fact, as soon as we chose to go to war we went down the rabbit hole of moral relativism. The idea that cultural sensitivity would have the slightest role to play in our invasion strategy is laughable beyond belief. The cornerstone of every war is dehumanization, beginning with the very names we call our enemies: nips, krauts, gooks, hadji. They’re all the same: subhuman, expendable. The dehumanization process is documented in particular by soldiers and vets who have turned the corner on war and become conscientious objectors and peace warriors.

In 2008, for instance, I attended the Winter Soldier hearing outside Washington, D.C., at which vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan spoke with terrifying candor about their experiences. Over and over again, the speakers emphasized that dehumanization — of the generic enemy, of the people whose countries they were about to occupy — is part of military culture and basic training. The recruits were hardened into killers, then sent off to distant lands to plant the American flag.

“They were beaten, humiliated, teased with food and water,” one vet said, describing the treatment of prisoners. “These guys were in our custody for a week and I didn’t see them eat the whole time. A Marine wiped his ass with an Iraqi’s hat and tried to feed it to a blindfolded Iraqi — who was desperate for food and tried to eat it.”

Another added: “I saw the destruction of the Babylon ruins — people breaking off chunks to bring home; joyriding up walls. There was a complete lack of understanding.”

And another: “We treated Iraq like our own personal cesspool.”

All of which suggests to me that the fact that certain U.S. allies in Afghanistan, in the war against our former allies (the Taliban), were wont to abuse local children sexually was not overlooked out of some screwball sensitivity to Afghan, or at least warlord, culture, but was cynically disregarded as irrelevant to the goal of defeating the enemy. What’s that you say? The “enemy” isn’t as bad as our friends? You’re missing the point. The point is victory.

Here on the home front, where we continue to fund this and all our other insane wars, military “victory” remains a feel-good mirage, some sort of triumph of good over evil. In the ravaged countries where we actually wage our wars, there is only moral breakdown everywhere you turn.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that sexual predation is very much built into American, and probably every other, military culture. Tens of thousands of women and men are raped in the U.S. armed forces every year; most of these incidents go unreported, because reporting a rape usually makes matters worse. That is, it’s not just in Afghanistan where “victims . . . risk blame and punishment for the crime that was committed against them,” as the Marine Corps training manual points out. It happens in every autocratic culture, including the U.S. military. The hammer of moral authority seldom falls on the ones who are in charge, no matter what they do.

Onward to victory, men (and gals)! Just be sensitive to the moral relativism of military culture. Don’t look too closely at what we don’t want you to see.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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