Anyone remember these scenes from The Patriot? (A warning for the faint of stomach, such as myself: this is pretty graphic.)
I remember watching this movie for the first time, and it was pretty disturbing.
One might say that I simply have a weak stomach or that I’m unable to deal with reality. To the contrary, I believe there’s an extent to which the reality of war should disturb us. Something is fundamentally wrong when one human is responsible for the death of another. If I am in a car accident in which another driver is killed — even if I’m not responsible — I don’t shrug it off as bad luck; it’s a life-changing event. If someone is sentenced to death, it is usually because they have caused the death of another. Killing (voluntary or involuntary) is an action that we have no power to reverse. We take it seriously.
This reality does not disappear in war. Combatants do not enter into lethal engagements lightly. If they do, it is viewed as particularly heinous, even among soldiers.
So what does any of this have to do with insurgency?
Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, is hesitant to become involved in any conflict with the British at the beginning of the film. He has seen his share of violence in the French and Indian War. He knows how brutal things can be, and has himself committed atrocities. He does not want to expose his seven children to that kind of existence. Nothing the British have done in terms of disrespect, oppression, or even violence elsewhere in the Colonies is enough to rouse him. Neither freedom nor liberty are sufficient to inspire him. One single issue drives his hatred and willingness to die fighting, and that is the indiscriminate killing of his civilian son. From that point on, he becomes a member of the armed resistance. In modern terms, he would certainly be categorized as an insurgent.
Of course, we know that The Patriot is a fictional story
loosely very loosely situated in historical context. What is not fictional, however, is the psychology behind Martin’s reaction. We humans will endure significant abuse and oppression before involving ourselves in armed resistance against a government force. No one wants to become a target, and we’ll usually try to evoke change via means that don’t get us shot.
All of that changes if you start killing our children. If that line is crossed, all bets are off.
Nearly a decade has passed since the September 11 attacks of 2001, during which time much has been made of an existential threat posed to our nation by Islamic extremists. According to Bush 43, our resultant war on terror will not stop until “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Furthermore, he claims terrorists “hate us” because we have a “democratically-elected government”, and because we have “freedom of speech.” Assuming it were possible to defeat every terrorist cell around the world, the argument is that we could commence with being free and secure once again.
This understanding of terrorist motivations has been accepted and repeated by our mainstream media outlets. It has been the party (both parties?) line ever since. Nearly a decade later, we remain in Afghanistan (to say nothing of our other entanglements) with no apparent intent to leave. It would appear that we have been incapable of achieving our stated goals thus far, and do not expect to achieve them in the near or foreseeable future.
Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, has an alternate understanding of why terrorists are willing to attack the United States. He argues that the reason we’re attacked is not because we’re free or because of cultural issues, but rather due to our policies in the middle east. He bases that belief on Al Qaeda’s explicit claims: “Vote for whoever you want: Bush or Kerry or the devil himself. This does not concern us. Our concern is to purify our countries from aggressors and to stand up to whoever attacks us.”
Of course, there will always be anomalies like bin Laden or Zawahiri who are willing to fight for regime change. They are displeased with the oppressive leadership of Saudi Arabia, and with Israel’s policies in Palestine. These governments (and others) would lose significant influence without the United States, and he’s willing to fight to degrade that influence. However, your average Afghan resident has no direct interest in these issues. Many of these people have never even heard of the 9/11 attacks. They are doing well to feed themselves.
So why would they get involved with a group like Al Quaeda? — for the same exact reason as our fictional Benjamin Martin: because their loved ones are dying.
A few days ago, 9 Afghan children were killed in an operation when they were misidentified as insurgents. As disillusioned as I am, I have a hard time believing that NATO troops would intentionally kill children in reprisal to an attack. Regardless, this is by no means an isolated incident. In fact, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the following comments about our early involvement in Afghanistan:
“We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force… [none of the cases in which] we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it.“
With that kind of admission from a General, it’s not hard to see why the likes of bin Laden would find recruiting much easier. Consider this reaction by Mohammed Bismil, adult brother of two of the young boys who were killed last week: “The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG or a suicide vest to fight.” Another quote comes from a relative of injured civilians in a May 2010 attack: “If the military keeps doing this, the people will go into the mountains to fight them. When I saw my daughter injured, all I could think about was putting on a suicide jacket.” (see video below at the 36:50 mark for the interview)
I recall my sense of queasiness being mingled with some level of satisfaction as I watched Mel Gibson unleash his holy wrath on a platoon of British soldiers with the expertise and stealth of a ninja. (It was like seeing the Punisher and Batman rolled into one.) His son had just been killed needlessly. He had a right to revenge. He had a mission to save his oldest son. He was achieving an honorable goal and making aggressors pay.
Of course that is an easy position for me to take. I’m an American white man; I can identify with this guy on a cultural level. I would be devastated if a child or a brother were murdered by an outside military force. I could almost see myself taking that kind of retribution, given the chance. It should be easy to understand the motivations of someone who has seen their loved ones killed by foreign forces, someone who has not been inundated with messages about the evils of the Taliban and Al Quaeda. We may see the man with an RPG or suicide jacket as an insurgent — a terrorist — but he sees himself protecting the family he has left and pursuing a righteous vengeance. Perhaps it would behoove us to consider how impossible it would be to see things any differently in those shoes, and to direct our policies accordingly.
One thing is clear: if we continue to kill civilians, we also deliver fiercely-dedicated recruits to Al Quaeda and its allies. Our long list of failures in this regard leaves no doubt that our declared enemy has grown stronger and that we have become less secure as a direct result of our presence in Afghanistan.