When America Reflects on Why a U.S. Soldier Killed 16 Afghan Civilians

We should try to understand what led the rogue sergeant to murder 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, and maybe even apply the same empathy to Afghan acts of terror.

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Anar Gul, right, is interviewed as she sits next to the charred body of her grandson, allegedly killed by a U.S. soldier / AP

The last piece of good news from the Afghan war was probably Operation Moshtarak. The early-2010 Marine-led assault on Helmand Province, a poppy-rich Taliban stronghold, reduced the number of insurgent attacks there by up to 70%. There were a few years at the end of the Bush administration and mostly at the beginning of Obama's when these sorts of stories -- not signs that the war was turning for the better, exactly, but hints that one day it might -- seemed frequent.

Not anymore. In the two years since Moshtarak, the story of the Afghan war has declined from one of promise to one of resignation to, increasingly, one of despair. Just this year, there has been the January video of Marines urinating on dead Afghan insurgents, the February accidental burning of Korans that sparked nationwide riots and led a number of Afghan soldiers to kill their American trainers, and now the U.S. soldier who walked off his base and into a nearby village where he killed 16 civilians, nine of them children. At one point he paused in his shooting spree, which is described as "methodical" and "from home to home," to pile 11 bodies, four of them of girls no more than five years old, and set them on fire.

Whenever there's a school shooting in the U.S., we have two national conversations about the shooters. The first and briefer of the two is a condemnation of their actions, a moment of catharsis. The second and perhaps more difficult is an attempt to sort out what drove them, to understand, to empathize, and then to learn from it. No one forgave the shooting at Columbine or Virginia Tech, but we did confront our society's problems with high school bullying and with student mental health. The discourse around Sunday's shooting in Kandahar is already following a similar pattern. That can probably only be a good thing, and though the lessons are obvious -- soldiers are stretched too thin, the war is exacting a significant cost on them, and perhaps we should consider whether it's worth those costs -- they're still worth exploring.

This is a world where a young man or woman might face five tours of duty over two wars, years of listening to roadside bombs in Baghdad or Basra only to have it follow him or her to Kandahar or Panjshir; where they join at 18 or 19 for want of a job and end up spending a fifth, a quarter, of their adult lives far from home, in an alien and hostile place, surrounded by violence. It's hard not to think of the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, the Seung-Hui Chos, exhausted, confused, afraid, and angry.

It's also hard not to think of the Afghans themselves, some of whose communities have been living with almost unbroken violence for now 33 years. In a place where mothers are young and life expectancy is 45 years, those three decades of war are an entire generation, maybe two. Is it any wonder, whether or not we choose to label Sunday's terrible incident as "terrorism," that some Afghans have also made the crazed, immoral decision to kill innocent people? The vast majority of American soldiers in Afghanistan do not shoot civilians, of course, but neither do the vast majority of Afghans.

Afghan war critics may be hesitant to sympathize with the deranged American who killed those civilians on Sunday, which would after all complicate their criticism of the war, just as Afghan war hawks often categorize the Taliban and its allies as a force of pure evil that must be stopped. But that American is human and so were the causes of his actions, as wrong and destructive as they were. No one should want to forgive him, but the media focus is already beginning to evaluate the causes; a New York Times story only hours after the fact cited "a feeling of siege here among Western personnel."

Maybe the conditions that led to this American's act of barbarity aren't so different from those behind some Afghan acts of terror. For all our focus on the ideological roots of terrorism, its economic causes, and the (categorically false, but unfortunately sometimes persuasive) religious arguments that its proponent make, perhaps there is a case to be made that another factor may be the psychological toll of war. They're not immune to the exhaustion of war any more than Americans are.

Both Afghans and Americans are exhausted of this war. And though the former have every right to be far more tired and angry about a conflict that has claimed so many more of their lives and that wages on their homeland, ultimately this story may horrify Americans more. If this is true, it's probably because we will be more surprised. For most Americans (though, sadly, far from all of us), the war only exists intermittently, and this moment is just a flash of a reality that Afghans have been living with for years. There is something far more grotesque to this incident than to all the others -- the air strike last year that killed seven, three of them children -- but if you're Afghan, how much of a difference would accidental versus deliberate really make?

The always-insightful Afghanistan correspondent Matthieu Aikins seems to suspect as much. "One reason why local reaction may be muted: Afghans tend to regard all 'civcas' incidents as criminal, not just 'rogue' ones," he wrote on Twitter, using the clinical military term ("civcas") for civilian casualties. "Some massacres we see as the 'necessary evil' of our allies, some we see as airstrikes gone awry, and others as rogue, criminal acts. But Afghans just see the blood of innocents, the dead bodies of their loved ones, and families torn apart."

The obvious lesson from this incident is that the war seems increasingly doomed, both because troops of the U.S.-dominated force seem to be paying for it so highly and because Afghans will likely only distrust us more (although there are many other reasons for the war's collapse that are not directly related to Sunday's killings). Even Newt Gingrich, who thinks the U.S. can replace Iranian oil and make the moon our 51st state, conceded on Sunday that the war may be "a mission that we're going to discover is not doable." (Although he also said this is because "we're not prepared to be ruthless enough.")

But perhaps there's a more difficult and more important lesson is an act that was committed by a U.S. soldier, a walking symbol of American patriotism, but that seemed to mirror some of the acts of the terrorist enemies we're fighting. Maybe some of those terrorists -- just some -- are not the one-dimensional "evildoers" we so often consider them to be. Maybe some of them have been driven in part by some of the wrong, unjustifiable, unacceptable, but ultimately human causes that contributed to the rampages at Columbine in 1999 or in Kandahar on Sunday.

It would not be easy for Americans to humanize an Afghan terrorist, and it would especially hard to empathize with his crime. But we've done exactly this with school shooters for years, and we will do it with Sunday's as-yet-unnamed rogue soldier, because we seem to understand that we have a responsibility to learn from what happened, however painful the process may be. Maybe it's time for us to try to understand the Afghans -- or even the Pakistanis or Iraqis or others -- who have committed similar senseless acts. If we did, we might not like what we found, but we would be better off for knowing. And so, one suspects, would they.