Politics & Policy

Where American Boots Are on the Ground, American Justice Must Prevail

U.S. Army patrol in Zabul Province, Afghanistan, in 2010. (Photo: Staff Sergeant Brian Ferguson)

Yesterday, the New York Times violated one of the cardinal rules of cultural sensitivity, especially as applied to the Muslim cultures of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It told the truth. In a searing story, it related how American soldiers are instructed to turn a blind eye to one of the most abhorrent practices in Afghan society — the systematic rape of young boys. The story begins:

In his last phone call home, Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. told his father what was troubling him: From his bunk in southern Afghanistan, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to the base.

“At night we can hear them screaming, but we’re not allowed to do anything about it,” the Marine’s father, Gregory Buckley Sr., recalled his son telling him before he was shot to death at the base in 2012. He urged his son to tell his superiors. “My son said that his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.”

While shocking to most Americans, the Times story isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s spent significant time in Afghanistan, particularly in the tribal regions. It’s not an open secret, because no one makes any effort to hide it. Men drape themselves around preteen boys, brag about the beauty of their young sex slaves, and abuse them so systematically and thoroughly that these boys often grow up without even realizing there is an alternative to their homosexual experience.

And that is but one cultural practice that has shocked the conscience of American soldiers. When I first arrived in Iraq, I’ll never forget attending a briefing for young soldiers who’d not yet been outside the wire. “You’ll see things out there,” they were told. “Things that just aren’t right. Men will beat women half to death right in front of your face. Don’t stop them. Don’t dare try. You’ll insult their honor, and we’ll have a tribal war on our hands.”

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He was right, at least about the beatings. In the fundamentalist area of Iraq where we patrolled, men would beat women casually, shoving them and striking them to demonstrate control, then resorting to savagery if they felt that a woman had looked too long at an American, or had made eye contact. The beatings weren’t confined to women. Horrific acts of child abuse would take place out in the open, and older kids would sometimes beat younger kids senseless — kicking them again and again while they lay on the ground — to steal a pencil or a piece of candy.

The concept of “honor” imposed on women was so twisted that rape became al-Qaeda’s most effective method of “recruiting” female suicide bombers.

The concept of “honor” imposed on women was so twisted that rape became al-Qaeda’s most effective method of “recruiting” female suicide bombers. After being sexually assaulted by terrorists, Iraqi women would face an obligation to “redeem” themselves through an act of holy martyrdom.

The jihadists themselves were often depraved on every level. The image of the holy warrior, the faithful Muslim sworn to fight the hedonistic infidel, as often as not proved to be a fiction of the western media. In reality, al-Qaeda safe houses often featured sex slaves, stacks of porn, and copious amounts of drugs. Jihadists often fought while high — their tenacity due more to intoxication than devotion to Allah.

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As I experienced this culture, I often reflected on the flattering, multicultural lies we were told during pre-deployment training. To read the State Department and Pentagon briefings, one would believe that we were entering one of the few truly holy places in the world — a place where a great an ancient people practiced a great and ancient faith — and it was incumbent upon Americans to leave as light a footprint as possible. Deference to culture made friends; disrespect made enemies.

#share#In reality, however, deference to culture often made enemies of potential allies. The abusers did not admire Americans for their restraint. Instead, they often viewed us contemptuously and flaunted their disregard for our culture. They despised and exploited our perceived weakness. The official American descriptions of Iraqi culture were painfully simplistic, and did a grave disservice by treating it as a singular, monolithic entity. There is a culture of the abusers, but there is also a culture of the abused. By viewing the culture of the oppressors as the default standard, we took sides with the worst of the worst while abandoning the oppressed to their fate.

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Western armies have not always exhibited such respect for depravity. I’m reminded of the response from General Sir Charles James Napier, a British commander in India, to the Indian tradition of Sati — the practice of burning widows alive on their husband’s funeral pyre. Let the cultural respect run both ways:

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

It is sad indeed that the world’s greatest civilization has utterly lost confidence in its own values. It is pathetic when those who know better persist in telling lies about enemies and allies alike. And it is evil when that lost confidence enables the abuse of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

There is no good answer for the culture of rape, abuse, and jihad that pollutes so much of the Muslim world. But after 14 years of war, we know that cowardly permissiveness in the name of cultural sensitivity alienates friends and broadcasts weakness, and it will never endear us to our enemies. The American soldier should be confident not just in the force of his arms but also the rightness of his values, and experience with the American military should also encompass experience with American values.

We can’t remake the world, but where American boots tread, American justice should prevail.

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