April 4, 2011

America’s Afghan Crusade

Photo: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

This photograph reminded me of Private Jackson, the sharpshooter in the movie Saving Private Ryan who takes strength and solace by prefacing each kill, executed with surgical precision, by reciting scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  In one scene near the end of the movie he cites from Psalms, 25:2, “Let me be not ashamed, let my enemies try not to fool me.”  It is not enough to save him, but the point is made as he dies a martyr to the cause of the “good war.”  Or at least that is how World War II and those fighting for the allies are  remembered.

The marine in the photograph above is fighting the war in Afghanistan—“Operation Enduring Freedom,” the longest war in U.S. history—and it is hard to know exactly how it will be remembered in the next century.  But there is an important distinction between it and WW II that the photograph here elides and underscores at the same time.  The allied troops fighting in the European theater of WW II may have taken comfort in identifying with a Christian god, but their “enemies” no doubt prayed to the same god, however misdirected they were. This soldier, however, is part of a predominantly American—and yes, implicitly Christian—military force occupying a thoroughly and explicitly Muslim nation.  And however else we might justify U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, there is no getting around the fact that it was initially characterized as a crusade and continues to bear the earmarks of a holy war; and  surely that is how the indigenous, Muslim population might reasonably be inclined to interpret it when official military weapons and other accouterments such as helmets continue to bear the visible signs of a crusade.

To the extent that the War in Afghanistan is a war on terror its success or failure will turn in no small measure on winning “hearts and minds” throughout the Muslim world.  It is hard to imagine how displays such as this can serve a productive end.  But more, it should give us all just a little bit of pause to wonder what it is that truly animates our persistence in a war that seems to know no end.

— John Lucaites

cross-posted from No Caption Needed

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John Lucaites
See other posts by John here.

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