Imagine—if you can—the following scene:
It's midnight, and the desert sky glows orange from the flames of the burning Humvee. Your best friend is still in there, trapped. Or at least you think he is. You can't be sure because the burning vehicle is behind you. All of your attention is focused ahead, 200 meters to the north, where six figures crouch in an irrigation ditch. Are they hostile? Why would six people be hiding in an irrigation ditch at midnight? Are they waiting to shoot down the medevac chopper that's on its way to—you hope, you pray—save your friend's life?
You see movement, and you call for permission to fire.
Thirty kilometers away, the scene is very different. In a busy tactical operations center, all eyes are fixed on a grainy, flickering, black-and-white image. The UAV feed keeps fading—it's hardly as clear as the images you saw on the news before your deployment—but you can see the Humvee aflame, the frantic efforts to free the trapped soldier (Who is it? Do you know him?), and you can also see—when the camera pans north—six ghostly figures lying down in an irrigation ditch, in a perfect position to ambush the medevac helicopter.
But you don't see any weapons. At least not clearly. The screen flickers again. You can't be sure.
What do you do? What do you do if you're the soldier on the ground? What do you do if you're the battle captain watching the UAV feed? Do you order the soldier to take the terrible risk of walking closer to the ditch to investigate further? These are the kinds of dilemmas that greet our soldiers every day in Afghanistan. These are the kinds of decisions that we faced all too often during my deployment in Iraq.
And here's the fundamental reality: Again and again, our commanders ask our young soldiers to go the extra mile, to take the extra risk, to protect innocent life. Again and again, we make decisions not to fire, not to use our superior weaponry but instead to walk straight into danger. And the terrible cost of those choices is one of the untold stories of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week, Rolling Stone unveiled its latest investigative report on American efforts in Afghanistan. The magazine has developed a sub-specialty in writing long, overblown stories critical of American leadership, but its target this time was much further down the military food chain—all the way down to the troops on the line.
The story, called "The Kill Team," tells the undeniably horrifying tale of a small group of soldiers who murdered at least four Afghan civilians. This crime was not discovered by Rolling Stone but was instead uncovered and prosecuted by the Army entirely without the magazine's help. Approximately one million Americans have served overseas in almost ten years of war. Of that million, a microscopically small percentage have committed atrocities. The so-called "kill team" was not the first to commit atrocities, and it will not likely be the last. Not everyone in uniform embodies Army values, and some are malicious and some are easily led astray.
But they are the minority. The tiny minority. Rolling Stone dedicates thousands of words to the actions of less than a half-dozen soldiers who killed four civilians. Actions prosecuted under the American military justice system. From this incident, and from photographs taken by deployed soldiers, Rolling Stone draws the following—slanderous—conclusion:
The photos, obtained by Rolling Stone, portray a front-line culture among U.S. troops in which killing Afghan civilians is less a reason for concern than a cause for celebration. "Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals," one soldier explained to investigators. "Everyone would say they're savages."
Let's put this in perspective. The death of four innocent Afghans is tragic and wrong. Yet when I was in Iraq, in our area of operations alone, more American soldiers died largely because of acts of restraint than Afghan civilians were killed in that "killing spree" in Afghanistan. In our area of operations alone more Americans died to enemy war crimes than Afghan civilians were killed in the atrocity Rolling Stone so comprehensively covers. And that was just in my small corner of the war.
Does Rolling Stone know that hundreds of Americans have died and thousands have been injured in the attempt to protect innocent life? Does Rolling Stone know that we often walk right up to the enemy in an effort to make sure we're not firing on civilians? Does Rolling Stone know that the enemy takes advantage of our caution as part of their tactics—by faking surrenders, and surrounding themselves with human shields? If we view civilian deaths as a "cause for celebration" why would we care about human shields?