I like to think that part of the reason I stayed alive is that I never let anyone get closer than the barrel of my rifle, not even the people that I knew.
-Clifford Hobbins, on his experiences interacting with the Vietnamese during his tour of duty
I don’t know how so many Qurans got burned.
While some may chalk it up to wanton malice and disregard, I have a sneaking suspicion that this act was precipitated by high-level thoughtlessness which, in some cases, is worse than malicious intent. Whatever the reason, as the smoke clears from Bagram Air Field, the response of the offended has been predictably severe. Apologies from the Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, have meant nothing. Apologies from President Obama have meant nothing. At least thirty Afghan civilians and four US military personnel are dead as US officials and Afghan officials try to figure out what to do next. Who among the Americans can be trusted to respect the sacred culture of the people? Who among the Afghans can be trusted as an ally in sacred spaces of the Americans?
When I heard about the Quran burnings, I shook my head and waited for the expected retaliation. Time and again, we’ve been shown that the fervent believers do not play that; their line in the sand is very clear, so an uprising was to be expected. Hearing that the retaliation included American troops gunned down in secure military facilities made my blood run a little colder. There used to be a time when I would have regarded this as the grim cost of war and moved on, but this time I can’t move on and my mind drifts westward toward the remotest parts of Missouri.
My wife–who is probably low-crawling as we speak–is a member of the armed forces, training to be a military police officer in our state’s National Guard. Some people breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that, thinking that both her part-time status and being a woman will keep her out of harm’s way. I tell them flatly that this is not the peacetime Guard; that female combatant status has a lot of loopholes; I tell them that anyone wearing Kevlar can be shot. They spoke to me with the assumption that there were rules when it came to war. I took a strange comfort from reminding them there are not.
I thought I understood this reality to the best of my ability, but the last few days have proven I do not. You see, while I expect my wife to be deployed at some point in her Guard career, a small part of me saw her particular speciality–military police–as a calculated risk. Sure; stepping outside the wire would always be a dangerous proposition, but so long as she was fulfilling her duties on-base, she would be out of harm’s way. And while mathematical probability still favors this line of thinking, Quran burning and individuals who pursue an objective with a murderous intent have a way of dashing math against the rocks. The last few days have shaken me as I imagined over and over the breaching of an army base–a supposedly sacred space–in order to exact retribution. Men disguised as allies shot two execution-style; the others were fired upon at point-blank range. These killings were intimate, personal. I find myself wondering over and over about those last moments, wondering if these ambushed soldiers were puzzling over this seeming disregard for the rules.
Over and over, my thoughts have drifted westward.
I realize there is only so much a person can do when taken by surprise, but my questions plumb a bit deeper than that. What do we do next? What will I want my wife to do when her number is called? The gung-ho, kill ‘em all tack is out on account of being highly dumb and highly dangerous. But how would I want my wife to conduct herself, to treat the people she encounters in lands that are not her own? I’d like to think I’d want her to be the person that she is: fair and even-tempered; a person who is slow to hostility and respectful of sacred culture and spaces.
Maybe the truth is there are no sacred spaces in hostile environments. While fairness and evenness are qualities to be desired, perhaps survival can only be measured in distance from your rifle barrel.
There are no rules.
Based out of Rhode Island, Jonathan is a writer and is the artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre.