We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.
Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.
A top US special forces commander visited a family in rural Afghanistan yesterday to plead for forgiveness after finally admitting that his troops killed five innocent people in a botched raid, which, Afghan officials said, the soldiers then tried to cover up.
Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven went to Paktia in eastern Afghanistan to the home of family head, Haji Sharabuddin, whose two sons were among those shot dead, and offered to enact the tribal ritual nanawate, in which a sheep is sacrificed at the door.
Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, and Haji Sharabuddin’s sons — a policeman and a district prosecutor — were shot dead on February 12 when unidentified raiders stormed their home after an all-night family party to celebrate a newborn child.
— The Times of London, April 9, 2010
Now, before you hit the comment button to inform me that the special forces unit had been given misleading intelligence, that its members had gone into a house believed to contain insurgents, and that in such situations troops have to safeguard their own lives by shooting first and asking questions later, consider what this argument implies. If a special forces unit — the best of the military’s best — cannot spare the time to distinguish a pregnant woman from an armed insurgent, there is, first and most simply, no point to sending any such unit to burst into a target house. Dropping a bomb on the building would have the same effect — in this case, killing five innocent civilians — at far less effort and cost.
More sobering, what this argument also leads to is the conclusion that the protection of American troops is such an overwhelming priority that all combat risk should be routinely outsourced to the non-Americans in a given area of operations. But this makes a mockery of the very reason a military is supposed to exist. Young men and women join the armed forces pledging to put their own lives at risk so that the civilians they protect will not be harmed. In the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers claim to be doing this on behalf of both the American public and the civilian populations of those two countries. Yet in case after case, American troops have acted in Afghanistan and Iraq as though it is their lives which are the priority, with civilians routinely subject to being killed on a just-in-case basis lest any harm come to the troops. There is something deeply morally inverted in the notion that the weak and vulnerable should die so that the strong and well-armed may live another day.
The lesson is bleak. Are you a teenaged Afghan girl living in a house targeted by U.S. special forces? Then you are quite likely to be killed — not for aiming a weapon at the soldiers, not even for running, but for nothing more than being a human shape in the dark.