Irish flashback: Sowing the seeds of the Afghan massacre
When I heard the news of the American soldier charged with the slaughter of 16 people in Afghanistan, I instantly flashed back to a ferry trip in the early 1970s from Liverpool to Belfast.
What could the tragedy in Afghanistan have in common with that trip so long ago in a different part of the world? Plenty.
On that ferry was a company of British soldiers headed for duty in Northern Ireland during the three-decade period of violence now called "The Troubles." I have never seen such a depressed group of people, before or since.
Those young soldiers were dreading our arrival in Belfast because they perceived everyone in Northern Ireland to be “hostiles.” It didn’t matter whether the civilians were Nationalists or Loyalists (what the American media portray as “Catholics” vs. “Protestants”). As far as these troops thought, they were all “the enemy.” And indeed, at that time, the soldiers were under guerrilla-style attack from both sides, subject to sniper attacks, and worse. While on the ground in Ireland, they were confined to gated and fortified compounds, except when they were on patrol—and on patrol they were in units of at least 10 or 15 soldiers, dressed in uniform with body armor, and all intensely observing every house, building, vehicle, and person in the area.
On an earlier visit to Belfast, I had learned proper deportment in the presence of British troops. When a patrol was passing, I saw the horrible look of scrutiny as they made that instant assessment of me to determine if I was an imminent risk to them. They had their automatic rifles at the ready, and I felt that any suspicious move on my part would be my last. So I always endeavored to walk slowly, looking straight ahead, never putting my hands in my pockets. It wasn’t just me; any civilian on the street, regardless of nationality, race or ethnicity, or political persuasion, was looked at suspiciously. They viewed us all as potential “hostiles.”
On that ferry I was seeing the other side of those automatic rifles: a nervous group of young men fearful of their assignment and eager to go back home to England. The soldiers had no social life in Ireland since they could not leave their garrison except on patrol. They had no contact with the local people, except in the negative sense.
Because of the stress the soldiers were under, in such a hostile environment, the British Army had made the wise decision to rotate them in 90-day deployments.
“I think I can make it for 90 days,” one young Brit confided in me, knowing that I was an American. (Had they known that my mother was an Irish Catholic from Belfast, I feel certain they would have treated me very differently on that ferry.)
Today, the American troops in Afghanistan are on deployments of roughly eight or nine months and often up to a year or more. They are also subject to multiple deployments—the Army Sergeant who is accused in the recent killings was reportedly on his fourth or fifth Mideast deployment. There are additional stresses on the American troops in Afghanistan though: the local people speak in strange and unintelligible languages, the people dress differently, and they are much farther away from home.
Having had a glimpse into the feelings of those British troops headed to Belfast, I can only imagine the stress the brave American men and women in Afghanistan are under. None of this is to excuse the recent killing—murder is not excusable—but a possible factor in why it happened and perhaps to take it as a wake-up call.
When you feel that everyone is hostile and likely to kill you and your buddies, it doesn’t take too much to set you off to do something you shouldn’t do. When a foreign army occupies another country, bad things happen, and the longer that occupation lasts, the more tensions arise. We have lately seen an increase in tragic and embarrassing incidents in Afghanistan: the burning of the Koran and the urination on dead Afghans are but two examples.
If one rationale for our presence in Afghanistan is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people, we are failing. The longer we are there, the worse we are viewed there, and unfortunately, in that entire part of the world. We are making more enemies, not friends. It’s time to bring our troops home.
Steve Deaton is the son of an Irish Catholic mother and an American Protestant father. He is a former Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney currently engaged in the private practice of law.Read more on: afghanistan