Afghanistan: the sickness of war

We’ve just seen this piece from the Guardian, detailing the casual murder of Afghan civilians by a group of US soldiers describing themselves as the ‘kill team’. Even though we focussed on Afghanistan quite a bit last week, this feels too important for us to allow it to pass without comment.

In short, it appears that the soldiers took to killing for sport, documenting their behaviour with photos and videos. Some of that documentation has now found its way to the desks of editors at Der Spiegel, who published three photos while refraining from making others public. Hans-Ulrich Stoldt, a spokesman for Der Spiegel, commented that the magazine was “as restrained as possible” in deciding what material to publish, suggesting that the photos we are permitted to see are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Disturbing as the images are on their own terms, what we find even more horrific is the message they send about the way war can warp the minds of those who participate in it. In a brutal environment, brutality becomes normal, even acceptable.

It’s one thing to talk about winning hearts and minds, and that may in itself be a very admirable endeavour — despite our deep reservations about the motives driving war in Afghanistan. It seems to us, though, that the pictures published by Der Spiegel illustrate a deeper truth: that it is impossible to fight in a war without being deeply impacted by the experience.

Those who die in war are the only the most obvious and visible tragedy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers return from wars with deep psychological wounds inflicted by bearing witness to the deaths of their friends, by taking the lives of other human beings, or simply from becoming used to existing in a barren, hostile environment.

Those soldiers may be greeted as heroes, then left to their own devices to adapt as well as they can to civilian life. Collectively, we train men to act as killing machines in war, then neglect utterly to retrain them to enter civilian life. We interpret the pictures published by Der Spiegel as evidence of the way in which war breeds violence in the minds of human beings, and allows behaviour that any sane human being would adjudge monstrous to manifest.

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