I happen to look Afghan. My looks gave me perspective when I worked for the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2003.
While in Kabul I usually kept a distance from other Americans, because I worked outside of the foreigner’s secured compounds. Entering those secured spaces was often dangerous. Nervous soldiers would train their weapons on me as I approached. That was a vivid lesson in seeing double: I was born on Fort Bragg while my father served in the 82nd Airborne Division. I identified with the soldiers as people, even as they worried that I was the threatening ‘Other’.
In Afghanistan, a violent gap lies between the foreign soldiers and the civilians of the occupied country. But another gap lies between those soldiers and the civilians of their own country – fellow Americans – who sent them to Afghanistan with a vague and creeping mission that has now lasted ten years. This second gap shows up occasionally as revelations of negligent veteran care and in disturbingly high rates of veteran suicides. But the civilian-military gap also shows up in the strains of long deployments.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, mid-level officers began to worry about our massive dual deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq. Current soldiers were trapped by ‘stop-loss’ into multiple deployments; National Guardsmen were shocked to discover that they were no longer ‘weekend warriors’; and despite denials, it appears that recruiters did lower their standards for psychological readiness of new recruits. All of this was to wage two major campaigns while avoiding the politically unthinkable decision to reinstate the draft. Thus, most American civilians have lived in a split reality – our daily lives do not remind us that we have been engaged in major warfare for a decade. “Support our Troops” has become a partisan political bumper-sticker, while actual soldiers continue to struggle with a fundamental incomprehension of the violence and brutalization they have experienced in this long war.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times released photos of U.S. Troops posing for photos with Afghan corpses. I do not excuse this vulgar and illegal treatment of Afghan corpses reported by the Times. I commend the soldiers who turned over the images out of concern for a breakdown in discipline in their own unit. In Kabul, word-of-mouth about military misconduct circulates very quickly, and public corroboration may actually help as people try to distinguish rumor from reality. However this actual misbehavior endangers not just soldiers, but also civilian foreigners who are also working with Afghans to rebuild their country.
I will return to Kabul in May. It is not ironic that members of my father’s own division have put me in greater danger; rather, it is the reality of connection across these violent gaps. We need to keep building and maintaining these connections in order to remain human beings, in how we treat each ‘Other’.
Pietro Calogero teaches urban studies at San Francisco State University. He focuses on housing and rights in the urban context, both in U.S. cities and cities across the world.