What Would We Lose By Winning...The Mission vs. Morality

Editor's Note: This post comes in response to the recent post on The Bridge by Michael Lortz, titled “National Security Goals and the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.”

While I was deployed to Afghanistan, my First Sergeant and I swapped stories while sitting in our CP. As a man with more than 20 years of experience his anecdotes about the “old” army of the 90s, the trouble he got into or witnessed, and the places he had been were usually fun and exciting to listen to.

But not always. As a man with more than 20 years of experience, he had witnessed his fair share of tragedies and morally questionable episodes. Like all such stories, they caused me to think and reflect. And lately one has become frightfully relevant.

One such event he relayed came from his time in Haiti while on a disaster relief mission. At the perimeter of an American compound encircled by concertina wire, he and the other soldiers would gather to hand out bottled water and various foodstuffs to the locals who wandered up. They had weapons but no ammo, and were under strict instructions that they were not to take any sort of action against a Haitian national. Instead, if an incident occurred they were to notify one of the U.S. Marshals who also resided at the camp.

One day the soldiers were confronted with a situation that caused them each to make a decision about what was more important, their mission as they understood it, or their own morality.

While lounging about the perimeter, one of the soldiers looked up and shouted. A very short distance from where the perimeter ended, a Haitian man had a young Haitian girl pinned to the ground, crying and screaming.

He was about to rape her.

The man carried on, heedless of the soldiers’ shouts. The squad leader had run off to find a marshal. Unconcerned, the rapist continued to attempt to force himself upon the struggling girl. He knew that the soldiers were powerless to stop him, and that finding a marshal would take some time…enough time.

Confronted with this scene, in absence of leadership, knowing full well his orders, wrestling with whatever convictions he had, one of the soldiers made a snap decision. Backing up, unslinging his M16, and approaching at a run he leaped over the concertina wire and raced towards the rape in progress.

It took only one blow from the butt-stock of an M16, swung from the shoulder to knock the man unconscious, spitting teeth and spouting blood. The soldier’s squad leader returned with a U.S. Marshal to discover one of his soldiers outside the wire, standing over the body of an unconscious man. The girl had run off, no doubt traumatized by the near-experience of being raped, but otherwise unharmed.

The soldier who had acted by what he knew to be right faced a verbal dressing down from everyone in his chain of command, followed by disciplinary action. Did he not understand the standing orders? Was he trying to cause an international incident? Did he not understand how much trouble he had caused? His actions were not part of the mission, what was he thinking?

Among other things, was thinking that was that he was not going to stand there and watch a rape — his personal moral convictions would not allow it. The powers on hand could do what they wanted, he had done the right thing and he would do it again.

Whether or not that story is true, exaggerated, etc., I do not know because I was not there. I am simply relaying the story as it was relayed to me. But it bears repeating, for a soldier acted without orders according to his own morality and supposedly jeopardized his unit’s mission. In that we find parallels with another moral conundrum that is for some reason a conundrum to some.

In Afghanistan there is a practice called bacha bazi which is in essence a ruefully tolerated custom where young boys are made to entertain older men by dancing, offering sexual favors, and other morally corrupt practices. You can learn about it herehere or here. Other than the stint of Taliban rule where it was viciously suppressed (as only the Taliban can do) it has been a practice carried out in the region for generations and has recently seen a resurgence.

The perpetrators are generally men in positions of power, who oftentimes were themselves victims of the practice. Though the practice has resumed since the fall of the Taliban, and occurred throughout the allied occupation, it has only just broken through to the American consciousness in the form of a story about an American soldier who had a very similar experience to the Haitian story above. You can read about him here.

Naturally this has led to some controversy.

The leader of the Afghan war effort has come out with a statement officially condemning the practice and encouraging service members to report it. Service members who have served in Afghanistan tell of times where they were allegedly instructed to ignore or remain silent about the practice. Some people think that tacitly accepting the practice is the price we pay for the security that will lead to ultimate victory. I take a different approach.

It is highly questionable to assume that anyone is “winning” in Afghanistan, or that the country’s long-term future is very bright. Unless of course one is a opium producer, arms dealer, or now a child rapist. Regardless, even if the U.S. and its allies were winning in Afghanistan it would be a hollow victory indeed if it were accomplished by with the willful ignorance or criminal acceptance of any number of crimes.

Furthermore it is questionable to assume that the suppression/eradication of such practices would have made the situation any worse than it already is, and somehow not supported the mission. Instead predators have been allowed to assume positions where they can prey on the people without even the semblance of good taste, which apparently for some greater good.

Strange how when one reads about the war in Afghanistan one inevitably reads about a trust deficit between the government and the people.

Considering that the perpetrators of practices such as bacha bazi are men in positions of power, and that positions of power tend to come from the government/army/police, it stands to reason that a visible, good faith effort to eradicate the practice may have actually endeared the Afghan government to the people. It is not a stretch to imagine that parents everywhere generally love their children, and would support such an endeavor. This is to say nothing of the numerous children whose (relative) innocence would have been spared and who may have grown up to become grateful, contributing adults.

Finally, if practices such as bacha bazi were the price of victory, what would that say about the men and women who would have been ignoring it on the ground, in real time? Do we really want people capable of turning their back, even if they are specially trained to “understand” what has been chalked up as a cultural nuance? I think not. Such individuals would not fit the high expectations set by the American nation for its service members.

America does and should work very hard to maintain the moral high ground and encourage its allies and partners to do so as well. Sometimes it slips as it tries to strike a balance between security and what is morally right. Sometimes short term interests trump long term goals. But that does not make it right.

It is our morality as Americans that must inform, guide, and shape our mission. In a place like Afghanistan there are no easy choices, especially when confronted with a practice such as bacha bazi. But when we put what we believe is the mission ahead of our morals when it comes to such a choice, we risk both the mission and our morals.

In that we risk real defeat.

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army, and member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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