“I been knocking on the door/ That holds the throne/ I been looking for the map/ That leads me home/ I been stumbling on good hearts/ Turned to stone/ The road of good intentions/ Has gone dry as a bone/ We take care of our own…/ Wherever this flag’s flown/ We take care of our own.”
Bruce Springsteen is no stranger to wilful misinterpretation; the tendency for his protest songs to be miscast as patriotic hymns stretches back more than a quarter of a century to Born in the USA, which was misappropriated by the Reagan re-election campaign in the mid-1980s.
The opening track on his latest album — arguably his most potent series of commentaries on the state of the union — is, as Springsteen recognises, liable to being misunderstood.
Who would have thought, though, that it could be deployed as a theme song for the rapid evacuation of Robert Bales from Afghanistan after he strolled into a village near Kandahar and slaughtered 16 innocents, many of them children?
He was rapidly airlifted to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The question of facing charges in Afghanistan obviously did not arise. And even before he had set foot in Kansas, a civilian lawyer had been hired to assist him. That’s all well and good.
Every accused person deserves a lawyer, and perhaps it’s just as well that the one representing Bales has appropriate experience. John Henry Browne has represented, among others, Ted Bundy, an American serial killer, rapist and necrophile who was executed some 15 years after being charged.
Browne is likely to have better luck with Bales. After all, a couple of months ago Sergeant Frank Wuterich was effectively exonerated for charges relating to the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, when he and seven other marines went on a rampage. Charges against six of the others were dropped or dismissed, while the seventh was acquitted.
Many years earlier, Lt William Calley was the only soldier convicted after details of the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam became public, despite concerted efforts at a cover-up. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the same Fort Leavenworth. President Richard Nixon immediately decreed that he should serve his time under house arrest. Less than four years later, he was a free man.
We take care of our own.
One of the supposedly mitigating factors in Calley’s case was the popular impression that he had been scapegoated. That was certainly true to the extent that many other officers and troops were involved in the gratuitous massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. It’s not that he wasn’t guilty, just that he obviously wasn’t the only one.
The corollary, in Calley’s case as much as in Wuterich’s, ought to have been several more trials rather than effective exoneration. Unlike Calley, however, Bales wasn’t ostensibly following orders. Unlike Wuterich, he was apparently alone. And deranged?
As Robert Fisk commented last week, “Surely, if he was entirely deranged, our staff sergeant would have killed 16 of his fellow Americans. He would have slaughtered his mates and then set fire to their bodies. But, no, he didn’t kill Americans. He chose to kill Afghans. There was a choice involved.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been cited all too frequently by the American press. Bales had served tours of duty in Iraq — where, according to a brother in arms by the name of Capt Chris Alexander, he did not betray a negative attitude towards his adversaries: “He said there was no need to be a jerk. Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet if you need to.”
That makes the entire enterprise of imperialist wars sound much like the longstanding parody of a US military recruitment drive: “Travel the world. Meet interesting people. Then kill them.”
In the case of My Lai, the American perpetrators of war crimes essentially got off with a defence that was deemed inadequate for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. It’s useful to remember, though, that quite a few of those who deserved to stand trial for their complicity in Nazi crimes were recruited to the American cause as immigrants.
The mitigating circumstances cited by the American press in the case of Bales, even before he has been charged, range from his war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan to the fact that his family back home was in dire economic straits. At least some of the reports concede, however, that he was by no means the only American soldier in that position.
Could it possibly be the case that war brings out the worst in those who participate in it, particularly — as in invariably the case — the enemy is ill-defined and dehumanised? If so, is that not a sufficient cause for avoiding war rather than holding out the false hope that the conflict presages some sort of a solution?
It has become less fashionable to refer to the Nato-led military operations in Afghanistan as ‘the good war’. The majority in Afghanistan never did support it. Now even the majority in the US does not, which has led some of Barack Obama’s would-be Republican challengers to suggest it ought to be halted before the 2014 schedule. Obama has apologised profusely for the latest massacre, telling Hamid Karzai that the mass atrocity felt as vile as if it had been perpetrated against American kids.
Karzai, meanwhile, has been putting on his periodic puppet-without-a-string act, demanding that Nato forces get out of Afghan villages — but not yet, mind you, out of the country, a move that would render his regime untenable.
What the future holds for Afghanistan is indeterminate and probably unpleasant. No one can accurately predict the extent to which the Taliban — initially sponsored by two of America’s closest allies in the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and quite conceivably still the beneficiaries of assistance from the ISI — will run rampant again. But if the blighted land if ever to be Taliban-free, the impetus must come from Afghans themselves.
Those who execute toddlers, urinate on the corpses of their adversaries and demonstrate their cultural ignorance by trying to incinerate copies of the Quran deserve no say in the matter.