Nation of Graves

When I published this, I got email from what I consider recreational liberals outraged by the idea that a little rough justice might have been meted out and perhaps more should have been. They were not nearly as outraged by the limbs stockpiled next to the mines, both for sale.


Nation of graves, government of justice


GAZHNI, Afghanistan — Afghanistan is a nation of graves. Afghans die for many reasons. Pneumonia and respiratory diseases in the winter. Typhus and cholera and other water-borne diseases in the summer. Tuberculosis and childbirth, all year round. They also die, year-round, from what they do to one another.

Every village has its graveyards, banners flying from staffs in a ceaseless wind. Green banners mean that the buried fell in the Russian War. You see green everywhere, just as you see the dead machines everywhere, the burned-out Soviet tanks and trucks and infantry vehicles. I have seen parts of these machines used in Afghan villages for roofing the homes of those who have not yet died.

Afghanistan is poor. Great poverty, like great wealth, often generates the kind of corruption that cannot coexist with civilization, and should not.

On the night of Wednesday, Feb. 23, I went on a raid with U.S. soldiers of the 3-116 Infantry Battalion, 29th Infantry Division, the “Blues and Grays” of the Virginia National Guard, and a detachment of the 1-25 Military Police Company. We went in support of the Afghan National Army. The target was the home of a jackal of war. I’d been on similar operations in Iraq. There, however, we were fighting insurgents. Here in Gazhni, we were shutting down a profiteer.

The man was not at home. His relatives explained he had mysteriously gone to Kabul the day before. They also swore that what we discovered was not their property but left over from the previous resident, a mujahedeen commander who had died.

In the mosque, we found a mortar round. In the rest of the compound:

Anti-aircraft guns. Rockets. RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) warheads and sights. Mortar parts and shells. Machine guns. Assault rifles. Other rifles, some dating to the British occupation. Ammunition, plentiful in variety and quantity. Anti-personnel mines and detonators. Anti-tank mines and detonators. Pistols. A police siren. U.S. dollars. Pakistani rupees. U.S. Army field rations (MREs, meals ready to eat). Two radios, handled gingerly, lest they’d been rigged to detonate other ordnance. Sacks of rice from USAID.

In corners, next to the mines and detonators, artificial legs and feet.

I watched as the soldiers loaded it all onto trucks. I thought of what the Soviets or the Nazis would have done to those people. Most likely, they would have tortured some, arrested or executed everyone, leveled the house, slaughtered the livestock.

Most likely, the women would have been raped. But there had been no violence here. We’d even brought along a female soldier, Sgt. Dolph of the MPs, a woman with considerable infantry experience, to guard the Afghan women and to reassure them. I’d seen the same thing in Iraq.

And yet, there had been violence here. At the start, the Afghans had taken one of the men, briefly, into another room. No screams, no blood, no bruises. Still, a point had been made At first, I felt rather bad for him. I also wondered whether to mention this in print. U.S. media nowadays are spring-loaded, trip-wired, always primed and endlessly eager to conflate every petty incident or honest mistake with crimes of war and sundry other enormities. Americans had permitted the Afghan soldiers their roughness with the man.

That faded into a cold, shared rage. This was their country. It would be Afghans who decided what would happen to this merchant of misery, if and when he returned, if in fact he’d gone anywhere at all. Afghan justice can be summary and brutal. We Americans would not touch him or kill him. But we could not deny that we favored his death. And we hoped that the Afghans themselves, whether the army or the police or simply his neighbors, would tend to it cleanly.

How dared we? Were we not there, above all else, to help this nation establish a government of justice? And is not law the essence of justice, and is not procedure the essence of law? Yes. But there is a centuries-old concept of law called “universal jurisdiction.”

Originally intended to deal with matters such as piracy on the high seas, it holds that some acts place their perpetrators so far outside civilization that anyone coming upon them has the right, if not the obligation, to act. Or as President Bush told the world three years ago, concerning the pursuit of Osama and his ilk: Whether they are brought to justice or justice is brought to them, justice will be served.

On the day one more arms dealer receives his due, the soil of Afghanistan may hold one more body. But it will also become a bit less of a nation of graves.


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