The Guardian, April 18, 2012
The LA Times released new photos Wednesday of US soldiers posing in a celebratory manner with the corpses of dead Afghan suicide bombers. The photos were provided by a soldier from the 82nd Airborne division who felt that they revealed a "breakdown in leadership and discipline", with the hope that the photos would force the Army to correct this situation.
However, US military officials requested the LA Times not publish any of the photos. The Pentagon statement argued that the photos "do not represent the character and professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan" and that the photos "have the potential to indict" all of our troops in Afghanistan "in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties".
Treating these photos as an isolated incident by a few bad apples is the Pentagon's second favorite response to news of our troops committing shameful acts overseas. This was how they treated the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the rape and murder of A'beer Qassim al-Janabi (a 15-year-old Iraqi girl), the Haditha Massacre, the "kill team" in Afghanistan, the Marines who urinated on dead Afghans, the recent murder of 16 Afghan civilians, and many similar incidents. If we count all the times US officials have claimed that the abhorrent and embarrassing acts of US troops overseas were isolated incidents, the numbers would reveal that this sort of behavior is actually quite regular.
The Pentagon's preferred response to these sorts of incidents is to claim that acknowledging them puts our troops overseas in danger, because news of these incidents could enrage the populations that we victimized and provoke them to attack our troops. Thus, these incidents are better kept a secret.
There are several things that trouble me about this line of logic. First, it implies that the blame for the harm that comes to our troops falls on Afghan insurgents, not on the politicians and generals who sent soldiers to Afghanistan. This rhetorical sleight of hand shifts the blame from the architects of the occupation to the people we are occupying.
More importantly, this type of reasoning reveals just how little we care about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, because Afghan opinion is regarded as an obstacle to be forestalled or overcome. The "white man's burden" is still very much alive in American war culture. Very few Americans question the assumption that we know what is best for Afghans; we don't feel that they have a right to object to what we are doing in their country. So when some Afghans resist and fight back, we consider it to be criminal.
Our goal, then, is to keep Afghans passive, rather than treating them as rational actors and encouraging them to have a voice. If Afghans want something other than what the Pentagon wants, it is deemed irrelevant; and our actions that might enrage them (since, again, they are not rational actors) are best kept a secret.
The Pentagon rhetoric is meant to deflect attention from all the moral questions that American citizens should be engaging in and focus their attention on the plight of our troops. Honest public discourse would address a persistent pattern of brutal and inhuman behavior by our troops and why that sort of behavior is to be expected in this war with all of its ideological distortions and immoral foundations. And it would address the right of Afghans to resist the imposition of our policies in their country, and the callousness of our leaders for putting our troops in harm's way by asking them to violate the rights of Afghans.
These photos do not reveal an individual instance of "breakdown in leadership and discipline", but rather the reality of an immoral occupation. Revealing such photos to the public will not endanger our troops any more than a continuation of this war will. It is the simple fact of the occupation of Afghanistan that is the real inciter of violence. And as long as US chooses to continue the occupation, more Afghan and American lives will be lost.