My boss told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t find my computer wallpaper in any way funny. I told him I wasn’t trying to be funny.
What I had on my computer screen was a picture of two young people, obviously in love, with a clear blue sky behind them. It was the kind of image that would come to be known as a “selfie.”
Why was this upsetting? Because the two people in question were participants in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. You might remember that scandal from the Iraq War, wherein soldiers took photos of stacks of naked prisoners, dogs, defecation, hooded figures, beatings, death, and a young woman giving the thumbs up. Or you might have forgotten. The people of Iraq and in the Muslim world have surely not.
I’d clicked on the couple because it was a lovely picture.
Even in the midst of all this horror, there was love. This was the girl with the thumbs, and her boyfriend. They had a happy moment, maybe their last in a long time, because they had become the face of evil in many people’s minds. I liked the image, so I clicked on it so I could see it again.
Am I stupid? Am I inconsiderate? Did I not consider how my coworkers might see this image on my computer screen as some ironic gag meant to piss people off? Yes, yes, yes, but I’m also stubborn, so I argued my case.
Because they weren’t monsters, they were kids. Or at least they were young adults, younger than me, a man who can’t be trusted with a screen-saver. How could they be expected to challenge their superiors? No, the monsters were George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Yoo, writer of the torture memos. The actors in the Abu Ghraib debacle were soldiers put into a horrible situation. These young soldiers had probably known people who’d gotten killed by the enemy, and thought that some of this horrible behavior would help save others. Now they were seen as evil.
I didn’t see them as evil, and liked their selfie, and made this argument to my boss, before quickly changing my wallpaper. I’m an idiot, but I stand by my feelings for these people. I abhor what they did, but I respect their humanity, and while I condemn their actions, I can’t condemn them. The U. S. military did, and they went to jail, and given the crimes against humanity, that seems just, but they were scapegoats nonetheless. I can’t hate them.
Another soldier, this time in Afghanistan, ran amok and killed civilians, some women and children. He told the judge there was “not a good reason in this world” for this abhorrent massacre. There’s not a good reason, but there’s a reason. He wasn’t evil; he was simply driven mad by war. A vast majority of Afghanis wanted him killed, but I’m glad he’s alive. I’m horrified by his actions, but I can’t hate him.
Now a prisoner of war is coming home, and because a deal was cut, and because it was cut by Obama, pundits are vilifying a U.S. soldier who lost five years of his life. This man has faced war and imprisonment, but because they can, a bunch of vile twerps are condemning him, his family, and the president for saving him. I don’t think they hate him, because I don’t think they actually care enough about anything to hate. I just think they want others to hate him, and their plan is working just fine. They should go to hell.
Despite all the railing against this young man who has gone through horrible things, we still don’t know much about his case, certainly not his side of the story. Much of what we’ve been told is misinformation. We’re not dealing with terrorists; that would be what we did in Iraq to get the Sunnis to stop blowing things up. We’re going to have to cut a lot of unsavory deals with the Taliban before we get out of Afghanistan, if there’s any hope of ending a perpetual bloodbath.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst about this man. He joined this war with the naïve intention of helping the Afghani people, became disillusioned, and then abandoned his post. People died searching for him. He ended up in the hands of the Taliban, who immediately embraced this defecting American, and it’s been a five-year love fest, and he’s a traitor and we just made a deal with terrorists to bring back the guy from Homeland, and also, his dad has a beard.
Of all the belittling and castigating coming from the right, the attack on this man’s dad is the least forgivable. Can we learn to leave the families alone? Here is a man who lost his son for the last five years, who’s clearly been struggling with what little he has at his disposal to try to bring his son back. Wouldn’t you try to learn about his captors, to try to talk to them in their language, if it might bring your son back? Can you understand that? If you can’t understand it, and instead make fun of this poor man, aren’t you a premium asshole?
Personally, I doubt this POW’s had a great ride. I think he’s been through some traumatic stuff. If his actions cost lives, surely some accounting will happen. Some people torture people, some people run amok, some people run away. There is a long tradition of people trying to flee the wars they serve in. Mark Twain has an amusing tale about his actions during the Civil War, which are the opposite of heroic. Yossarian tried to be declared insane so he didn’t have to fight anymore.
Not everyone serves with distinction. No one who serves deserves to be vilified by a bunch of sneering pundits. We run our wars on the backs of a volunteer army, some continuing a family tradition of military service, some just looking for a way up in this world, and some just trying to help. They’re not patriotic robots we call heroes, thank for their service, and then spit on if they don’t match our preconceptions of how soldiers should act.
War is evil and horrific. If we’re not going to face it ourselves, we owe it to those who face it for us to treat them with compassion when they break. We can’t ignore wrongdoing, but we can recognize the cauldron of violence that it occurs in, and temper our sneering.