Citizenship Confusion: When a U.S. Soldier Slaughters Civilians

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

Early on Sunday, in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, a U.S. Sergeant (allegedly) walked from the military base where he was stationed on a “a village stabilization operation,” [NYTimes] which involved building relationships with local leaders, to a village in the Panjwai district, where he moved through three homes, killing entire families, gathering their bodies, and setting them on fire.

Among the 16 dead were 9 children.

As of late Sunday night, there is still no word on what motivated this rogue soldier to commit the massacre, but there are a number of realities about war in general and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular that can help us as Christians to contextualize this tragedy and reevaluate warfare.

The New York Times has reported that the soldier had 11 years of experience and had already served three tours in Iraq; the stress of such tours could have had serious psychological effects on the soldier. An ugly and utterly inglorious reality of warfare, and perhaps particularly modern warfare, is the high rates of mental illness and suicides among soldiers in active duty. For example, a recent study has shown that between 2004–2008, suicide rates increased more than 80% in the Army. And rates of mental illness have risen similarly. It seems quite plausible (or even likely) that this soldier experienced a profound mental breakdown which drove him to commit this horrible crime.

Mental illness is not the glorious, heroic, cinematic face of war sold to us in recruiting campaigns. It’s honorable to come home physically wounded from war, but not so honorable to come home paranoid or violent. Yet this is the reality of modern warfare, and to ignore it is to ignore the true nature of combat. I suspect that this is what Nick Olson had in mind last week when he wrote about Act of Valor: “An honest concern for the emotional and moral turmoil that soldiers experience in wartime pays better tribute to their sacrifice because it would humanize them — and the countries they represent — in all of their potentiality for good and evil.”

Whether or not it turns out that this soldier had a severe mental illness like PTSD, our country needs to reckon with the psychological casualties of war, preferably before we send our troops into combat.

Another (related) potential factor in this tragedy is the dehumanization of Afghans by U.S. forces. This is not the first time that U.S. forces in Afghanistan have intentionally killed civilians. Last year, I wrote about the infamous “Kill Team” which killed Afghans for sport, videoed and photographed the murders, and shared the footage and pictures with friends. Perhaps the most haunting quote from the Rolling Stone article on the Kill Team described the soldiers’ utter disgust with Afghans:

“Toward the end of Morlock’s [a member of the kill team] interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. ‘None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people,’ Morlock said. Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. ‘Some shit goes down,’ he said, ‘you’re gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck ‘em.’”

Nearly all substantiated reports say that the soldier acted alone, and as Obama has stated, “This incident . . . does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.” And yet, I worry that in distancing ourselves from this soldier’s actions, we too easily overlook the effects of warfare on our troops’ morality. As the above quote demonstrates, some of our forces have dehumanized not only their enemies, but also the civilians around them. Could this dehumanization of the Afghan people have contributed to Sunday’s massacre? Perhaps, and even if it didn’t in this particular case, as Christians we should be deeply concerned about how our wars have affected the morality of our soldiers, as I’ve argued before.

Finally, whether it factored into this tragedy or not, we need to acknowledge and address the wide-spread and socially accepted (in some circles, at least) racism, bigotry, and hatred of Arabs and Muslims in our country. If we allow others to spread unchallenged the idea that Muslims are all violent, irrational animals who will seek to slaughter us unless we kill them first, then we have no right to disown the soldier who slaughtered these civilians.

If you don’t think this idea exists and is being spread, I’d encourage you to read this summary of how FOX News readers responded to the tragedy in the Panjwai district.

Or look at how some of the readers at JihadWatch.org speak about Muslims.

Or  do a Google search for “Nuke Mecca.” And weep.

Until more information comes out about this incident, we cannot and should not speculate too confidently about what might have precipitated it; however, as Christians who have a responsibility to our neighbors in Afghanistan and our neighbors in uniform, we should use this incident as an opportunity to reflect on the tremendous psychological and moral casualties of war and the danger of allowing anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry to go unchecked in our public discourse. And pray for all those affected.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Daniel

    This atrocity must be a time of reflection for America, especially for Christians in America.

    So many things need to be considered:
    *Most Americans will strongly support giving this Soldier a fair trial, and not a small number will be reluctant to put him to death, because they will look at how the Soldier is not just a criminal, but a victim of this war as well.

    Yet at the same time, few Christians were outraged that a fellow American was assassinated in an extra-judicial way–without trial, without even evidence presented (it was “too secret”–we need to just trust the government); and the government didn’t even try to claim he directly killed anyone, unlike this Solider. I am speaking, of course, of Anwar Al-Awlaki.

    *Is what the Soldier did so surprising? As you point out, we’ve demonized and de-humanized our enemies to such a point that what is surprising is that there are not more of these incidents.

    And really, the careless collateral damage of our policies and troops is hardly that much better. During the Sadaam era, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died as a result of our sanctions. Madeline Albright’s response? “The price was worth it.”

    *These kind of atrocities are not unique in American history. Though the cases aren’t exactly parallel, there was a similar atrocity in 1906, almost to the day. Read what Samuel Clemens wrote about it: http://www.loonwatch.com/2012/03/march-10-1906-meets-march-11-2012-infamous-days-in-us-army-massacres/

    *The Evangelical Church in America has steadily been giving in to equating the Kingdom of God with the United States. The nearly sycophantic praise of the military is troubling. While I view military service as an honorable choice, I think we’re in danger of making it the MOST honorable, and any other service is less. The goals of our actions in Afghanistan–in defeating “terrorism” or “Radical Islam”–do not seem exactly parallel with the Church’s goal. (It’s not necessarily opposed, but it’s hardly the center of what we’re called to do.)

    *We tend to be blind of our own faults and failures, and magnify those of our enemies. I will often hear phrases like “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” and “killing infidels is consistent with mainstream Islamic thought.” But people like this Soldier (or like those who took war trophies in human body parts, or rape 14 year old Iraqi girls and kill their families to cover their crimes, or urinate on dead Afghans, etc.) are viewed as aberrations. In short, we automatically assume the best of our side, and automatically assume the worst of our enemies. This is not a “Terrorist”–he is a “troubled young man who snapped”. Unlike, of course, a Muslim who may have seen his whole family killed deciding to take revenge. Why, he’s just evil.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    This made me very sad. I really have no coherent thoughts beyond that – just … sadness.

  • Rana

    Thank you for shedding light on this dark corner.

    “If we allow others to spread unchallenged the idea that Muslims are all violent, irrational animals who will seek to slaughter us unless we kill them first, then we have no right to disown the soldier who slaughtered these civilians.”

    And not just Muslims but also bias against Arab/ Arabic speaking countries. This is real anti-semitism people. Arabs are Semites, Semitic people who speak a Semitic language. Use your dictionaries. Shed light on the ignorant, dark places.

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    I’ve really struggled with this news story. Our countries and this war are so center stage that the soldier’s criminal acts could have far-reaching consequences. My immediate reaction is that he ought to be punished quickly and publicly for Afghanistan to see. That is not like me – I want fair trial, I want all of us to see the effects of war and respond to those effects as doctors do with patients – but I felt deep compassion for the victims and deep frustration toward the soldier.

  • Daniel

    @Sam, I understand.

    Although the Soldier is definitely to blame for his own crime, I wonder how the Army considered him “fit for duty” after a traumatic brain injury. Was he really “fit” for duty? Did they fudge his fitness so they’d have enough troops?

    If that comes out, I think those responsible should also be punished.

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    The top NYT comments (“Times Picks” I think they’re called) have a generally favorable tone toward the Afghanistan people, which is a pleasant alternative to the hateful stuff going on elsewhere.


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