22 February 2010

Afghanistan : Telling the Wolves from the Sheep

It all started in Rhode Island...
They shoot Americans, don’t they?

To expect that they won’t be shot at is an example of that sort of American innocence that has worn awfully thin after centuries of American invasions of other countries.
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / February 22, 2010

Near the end of the 17th century, Roger Williams -- the founder of Rhode Island -- complained to the Governor of Massachusetts that Indians were shooting English colonists during a brutal military clash that has come to be known as King Philip’s War. The Indians were also using guerrilla warfare, Williams explained; they lured the English into woods and swamps and attacked them there with “fire, smoke and bullets.”

Williams was shocked and outraged. America as an offshoot of Europe was just beginning to wear breeches and so perhaps Williams might be excused for his inability to see that the English had invaded the continent, and that the indigenous inhabitants did not, on the whole, enjoy the invasion. So they used whatever weapons they had at hand: bows, arrows, guns, bullets, and fire, to repel the invaders.

Williams expressed his views in 1675 -- 375 years ago. That was near the start of “native” resistance -- military, cultural, and diplomatic -- to colonizers and empire builders on the continent of North America. Now, 375 years later, it seems incredible for Americans to be shocked once again that all around the world, and especially in Afghanistan right now, soldiers from “native” populations are shooting at American troops.

They are not only shooting at American troops. They are also taking close aim at American troops, and trying to kill them, as reported in a February 17, 2010 article by C. J. Chivers, entitled “Snipers Imperil U.S.-led Forces in Afghan Offensive” that was published in The New York Times.

Oh, dear me, Taliban soldiers aiming at U.S. troops. “Five marines and two Afghan soldiers have been struck here in recent days by bullets fired at long range,” Chivers wrote. “Some of the shooting has apparently been from Kalashnikov machine guns, the Marines say, mixed with sniper fire.” My, my, my, what will the Taliban fighters think of next? Imagine that, using Russian-made machine guns -- left perhaps years ago by fleeing Russian troops unable to subdue the Taliban.

Americans have long had what might be called a “perception problem.” For hundreds of years, Americans have viewed themselves as liberators, and as fighters for freedom. They have believed that they were overturning tyrannical regimes and bringing democracy to the rest of the world.

Granted, in World War II, Americans helped to defeat Nazi Germany, and free Europeans from fascism. That was one of the very few times that American troops were welcomed with open arms and applauded -- by the French, for example, and by Jews in concentration camps. But ever since then, time and time again, American troops -- whether in Korea or Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan -- have been shot at and killed with the aim of driving them out of those countries. The foes have often been sharpshooters and snipers. That is what happens in war, and as William T. Sherman observed at the time of the American Civil War, “War is hell.”

I wish it were not hell. I wish wars were picnics. I wish that American troops did not die or have to die. I want all troops to come home safely. But I also know my history. I know that American troops have been shot at again and again in countries all over the world. To expect that they won’t be shot at is an example of that sort of American innocence that has worn awfully thin after centuries of American invasions of other countries. That American innocence is now a deadly infection, and a contagious disease.

The story is the same over and over again. It is in many ways the same story that unfolded in New England in the 17th century, when the English colonists battled the Indians, and the Indians battled back. Roger Williams ought to have known better. He should have understood that once the English lied to the Indians, kidnapped them, took their land and robbed them of their rights and freedoms they would meet with armed resistance. Even Indians who had used bows and arrows learned to use muskets and to take deadly aim.

To expect that the people of Afghanistan will greet the Americans with open arms is delusional. It does this country and our soldiers and citizens a grievous harm. The New York Times might give the reporter C.J. Chives the assignment of writing a story about why Taliban snipers are shooting bullets at U.S. Marines and killing them.

We know they are. We know where, when, how, and with what. Tell us why please. Perhaps if we understood their reasons we might be able to extricate ourselves from the myth of our own innocence that condemns us to send soldiers to countries around the world where they are killed.

In 1675, when King Philip’s forces engaged in guerrilla warfare with the colonists, Roger Williams wrote, “it is not possible at present to keep peace with these barbarous men of blood.” He added that they “are as justly to be repelled and subdued as wolves that assault the sheep.”

American military commanders tend to see the Taliban in a similar way, as “barbarous men of blood” who must “be repelled and subdued as wolves that assault the sheep.” But who are the real sheep and who are the real wolves? Who are the wolves in sheep’s clothing? And who are the sheep in wolves’s clothing?

Perhaps The New York Times and its reporter C. J. Chivers might answer those thorny questions, and not divide the world all-too neatly into innocent sheep and guilty wolves.

[Jonah Raskin teaches media at Sonoma State University and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California and The Mythology of Imperialism.]

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