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Sad Lessons from the U.S. Soldier’s Afghanistan Rampage

The boogeyman was real for one family. Does it make any difference that the family was in Afghanistan and the boogeyman was us?

I tuck my children into bed each night, safe from the perils of war, rockets and rebels. The quiet, suburban night envelops us in the haven of safety. “Sweet dreams,” I wish them, as do all the other mothers just like me.

Tonight, though, as I do so, I will think of the unimaginable horror for one Afghan mother. She had likely grown accustomed to putting her children to bed in surroundings much less sure or safe, amid the constant noise and perils of war. That family went to sleep one night, uneasy as always, and the worst nightmare came true—that someone who was in their country to ‘protect’ them instead invaded the tatters of whatever dreams they had left as a true-life monster.

I also think of a family here in the United States, who sent a husband and father off to a war so far away, and trying to hold down the increasingly unsteady fort. It was his fourth tour of duty, and the effects of war were taking a toll on them all. I imagine the pain that mother now feels, of trying to explain to her children what daddy did that will make him stay away for a very long time.

There will be much written and said about Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the coming days and weeks. As the soldier accused of going on a rampage in a remote Afghan village in the dead of night, he allegedly brutally massacred 16 civilians as they slept; nine of them were children.

Perhaps, some suggest, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from previous deployments, or he was experiencing a lasting effect from a prior war-related head injury. Maybe he just snapped, with the cause of his psychological break rooted in a mental health explanation. One might think that as a sniper, maybe he was doing what he had been trained to do—to kill.

As a nation we’ll struggle with the aftershocks long after the story moves off the front pages. How can we find compassion for a soldier likely taxed by an overburdened military, and sent time after time after time into situations of unimaginable horror? What will we do to staunch the diplomatic damage, let alone anticipate potential reprisals and the threats of revenge?

Perhaps most defining of all, how will we come to grips with the incomprehensible disconnect between our stated purpose of “defending our democratic ideals” versus a senseless, vicious act of evil perpetrated by one individual? We can’t write off what happened as just an act of war. This was no battle, it was not a mission—what it was instead was a mass murder.

To think of it in other terms, how would we have felt and what would we have done if that same act had been perpetrated on our shores, either by a U.S. citizen at home, by a police officer, or an enemy from abroad?

Perhaps we need to take a larger pause and ask ourselves, what have we wrought? What happened to the humanitarian role that our philosophy says we ought to be performing? What happened to doing the right thing simply for ‘right thing’s sake’? Instead we’ve spent a decade of doing the selfish thing, pursuing our interests in oil while ignoring other humanitarian causes—Sudan for example—and leaving situations—as in Iraq—perhaps worse off in our wake.

When U.S. military expenditures account for almost half what the world’s nations spend, when we spend $200 billion more than the next 10 largest countries’ military budgets combined, it behooves us to understand the military might we swing, for the world, for us at home, and for those we send into battle.

We've turned our collective back on other world crises, we've outstayed our abilities, engendering more animosity and inflaming hatred. And all we've done is oversimplify fables we’ve created in our minds and made regions where we have no right being more tribal and bereft of infrastructure.

It’s a reflection on us as a just people when in our society there’s debate about whether or not we should apologize for U.S. soldiers’ misconduct in lands not their own. When U.S. servicemen urinate on Qurans, and politicians suggest our President shouldn’t apologize for it, we seem to have lost sight of the leadership role we should be playing on the world stage.

Was the point to gain allies and promoting democracy? Instead we’re justifying those who hate us to organize stronger, and we’re failing to adhere to our own principles.

And how are we taking care of the soldiers we send onto the battlefields? I’m not talking about the fact that their homecoming parades were given to the victors of the Super Bowl instead. How are we supporting them with equipment, with counseling, with opportunities upon their return? How are we helping their families they leave here to wait? How do we help them cope with what they’ve been through for years to come?

Our war in Afghanistan is obviously no fairytale. There will certainly be no happy ending. In war, there never is.

But what moral of the story will we as a nation, as a culture, as members of the human race learn from what is happening ‘over there’?

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