- Those who have not been to war cannot judge the actions of those who have, Smith says
- Soldiers who posed with bodies should be reproached but not demonized, he says
- Troops are not different from your sons and daughters, Smith says
In recent days, we have again found our national attention turned to a handful of images someone has brought back from Afghanistan, this time showing American soldiers "posing with insurgents' body parts," in the words of a typical commentary.
The report is tinged, as always, with tones of shame and reproach. Reflexively, our gaze turns inward and the chapel bells of moral outrage are once again rung. A vague shroud of nobility is draped on the term "insurgents," as if they were daring mountain climbers or intrepid explorers. The 99% of American households with no attachment to our military shake their collective heads and wonder at such repugnant developments, How could our boys?
Well, I'll tell you.
They're in a war, as cruel and nasty as any war is. They are suffering and bleeding in ways that those of you who have never been there will ever understand. They deal every day with an adversary who is not noble by any stretch. He is a skulking murderer who does nothing braver than wait, watch and press a command detonator that destroys in one violent instant young American lives and limbs. Here is what that slinking, crouching, hiding enemy brings them, in the words of a young Navy surgeon writing anonymously on deadspin.com last month:
"One Marine from my unit lost both legs high on the femur in an instant, and the blast opened his pelvis. Marines and a corpsman were at his side in seconds, and knew where to find his arteries to stop the bleeding from his gaping groin. His circulatory system no longer circulated — his arteries and veins were a nest of open-ended tubes draining away from his heart. The team at Camp Bastion stabilized his injuries, and in the process gave him more than 100 units of blood. Twenty citizens' worth of blood went into him and flowed out his wounds again before he was stable."
That is what your soldiers and Marines, the ones you sent to that backward, violent place, live and die with. And consequently, on those rare occasions when they can corner the craven shadow dwellers who have been inflicting such dreadful, random, merciless death and dismemberment, they kill them. Gratefully. Enthusiastically. Passionately. In repayment for what has been suffered on your behalf. In expiation of the terrible burden of having watched helplessly as comrades are killed and maimed in the most awful ways that you in your living rooms can't even begin to imagine.
So if they are caught in some primitive dance of celebration over the dead bodies of their tormenters, catch them up short. Tell them it is undignified, undisciplined and bad counterinsurgency. But don't demonize them or lionize their enemy.
Before you condemn their character, step back and reflect on the fact that you sent them there. They went instead of your own son or daughter, from whom they are no different. Ask yourself whatever could make our young men act that way. And finally, accept that you don't know the answer, because you have never been there.
To know that, and still claim the right to sit in judgment, is a betrayal as profound as anything that happens in war.