Are Afghan Lives Worth Anything?
Following almost two weeks in which the US (and global) media went berserk over the death of one man, in which NBC, for instance, devoted all but about five minutes of one of its prime-time half-hour news broadcasts to nothing--and I mean nothing--but the death of Michael Jackson, in which the President of the United States sent a condolence letter to the Jackson family (and was faulted for not having moved more quickly), in which 1.6 million people registered for a chance to get one of 17,500 free tickets to his memorial service... well, why go on? Unless you've been competing in isolation in the next round of Survivor, or are somehow without a TV, or possibly any modern means of communication, you simply can't avoid knowing the rest.
You'd have to make a desperate effort not to know that Michael Jackson (until recently excoriated by the media) had died, and you'd have to make a similarly desperate effort to know that we've knocked off one wedding party after another these last years in Afghanistan. One of these deaths--Jackson's--really has little to do with us; the others are, or should be, our responsibility, part of an endless war the American people have either supported or not stopped from continuing. And yet one is a screaming global headline; the others go unnoticed.
You'd think there might, in fact, be room for a small headline somewhere. Didn't those brides, grooms, relatives and revelers deserve at least one modest, collective corner of some front-page or a story on some prime-time news show in return for their needless suffering? You'd think that some president or high official in Washington might have sent a note of condolence to someone, that there might have been a rising tide of criticism about the slow response here in expressing regrets to the families of Afghans who died under our bombs and missiles.
Here's the truth of it, though: when it comes to Afghan lives--especially if we think, correctly or not, that our safety is involved--it doesn't matter whether five wedding parties or fifty go down, two funerals or twenty-five. Our media isn't about to focus real attention on the particular form of barbarity involved--the American air war over Afghanistan which has been a war of and for, not on, terror.
Now, we're embarked on a new moment--the Obama moment--in Afghanistan. More than seven-and-a-half years into the war, in a truly American fashion, we're ready to turn the page on the past, to pretend that none of it really happened, to do it "right" this time around. We're finally going to bring the Afghans over to our side.
We're ready to light out for the territories and start all over again. American troops are now moving south in force, deep into the Pashtun (and Taliban) areas of Afghanistan, and their commanders--a passel of new generals--are speaking as one from a new script. It's all about conducting a "holistic counterinsurgency campaign," as new Afghan commander General Stanley A. McChrystal put it in Congressional testimony recently. It's all about "hearts and minds"(though that old Vietnam-era phrase has yet to be resuscitated). It's all about, they say, "protecting civilians" rather than killing Taliban guerrillas; it's all about shaping, clearing, holding, building, not just landing, kicking in doors, and taking off again; it's all about new "rules of engagement" in which the air war will be limited, and attacks on the Taliban curbed or called off if it appears that they might endanger civilians (even if that means the guerrillas get away); it's all about reversing the tide of the war so far, about the fact that civilian casualties caused by air attacks and raids have turned large numbers of Afghans against American and NATO troops.
The commander of the Marines just now heading south, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, typically said this:
We need to make sure we understand that the reason we're here is not necessarily the enemy. The reason we're here is the people. What won the war in al-Anbar province [Iraq] and what changed the war in al-Anbar was not that the enemy eventually got tired of fighting. It's that the people chose a side, and they chose us.... We'll surround that house and we'll wait. And here's the reason: If you drop that house and there's one woman, one child, one family in that house--you may have killed 20 Taliban, but by killing that woman or that child in that house, you have lost that community. You are dead to them. You are done.
The Value of a Life
As it happens, however, the past matters--and keep this in mind (it's what the wedding-party-obliteration record tells us): to Americans, an Afghan life isn't worth a red cent, not when the chips are down.
Back in the Vietnam era, General William Westmoreland, interviewed by movie director Peter Davis for his Oscar-winning film Hearts and Minds, famously said: "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
In those years, there were many in the US, including Davis, who insisted very publicly that a Vietnamese life had the same value as an American one. In the years of the Afghan War, Americans--our media and, by its relative silence, the public as well--turned Westmoreland's statement into a way of life as well as a way of war. As one perk of that way of life, most Americans have been able to pretend that our war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with us--and Michael Jackson's death, everything.
So he dies and our world goes mad. An Afghan wedding party, or five of them, are wiped off the face of the Earth and even a shrug is too much effort.
Here's a question then: Will what we don't know (or don't care to know) hurt us? I'm unsure whether the more depressing answer is yes or no. As it happens, I have no answer to that question anyway, only a bit of advice--not for us, but for Afghans. If, as General McChrystal and other top military figures expect, the Afghan War and its cross-border sibling in Pakistan go on for another three or four or five years or more, no matter what script we're going by, no matter what we say, believe me, we'll call in the planes. So if I were you, I wouldn't celebrate another marriage, not in a group, not in public, and I'd bury my dead very, very privately.
If you gather, after all, we will come.