It is as scandalous as it is shocking. The incidents of sexual violence against children described by American military personnel serving in Afghanistan is, of course, sickening. That it is being perpetrated by ostensibly U.S. allies moves us somewhere far beyond stomach-churning. More profane still is the apparent blind-eye turned toward such acts by American military and civilian command.
My Lord!: Children can be heard through the walls at night on forward U.S. bases, screaming as they are being raped by Afghan police; girls are being seized while tending the fields or playing and sexually assaulted and then forced to marry their assailants to cover their stain; boys are stolen and chained to beds and sodomized again and again by military commanders. Tolerating this, overlooking this, for whatever reason, is indescribably abhorrent; doing nothing against such malevolence is hors catégorie on the spectrum of moral repugnance. It is much more than dereliction of duty. We ought to be soul-crushingly ashamed.
As reported in The New York Times (here, here, and here), the rape of children veers toward epidemic in Afghanistan, and the forced sodomy of young boys is particularly rampant among pro-government police and military commanders who dominate northern Afghanistan, command the militias funded, trained, and nurtured by American forces, and who use their power to bully the local populations. Known as bacha bazi, “boy play”, the Afghan predators will often select their playthings from among their personal contingents of “chai boys” – domestic servants and tea-servers often pressed in sexual slavery. Regarding these horrors, American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene.
Some are good with this. In light of the fight against the Taliban, they say, the prevailing, if informal, posture of American leadership to sacrifice Afghan children in order to maintain alliances with the Afghan police and militias is necessary. “The bigger picture,” one former Marine insisted, “was fighting the Taliban, it wasn’t to stop molestation.” Others, with a nihilistic shrug, pass it all off as a simple clash of civilizations.
But the judgement that the abuse of children is a moral evil knows no cultural boundaries. If nothing else in the whole moral universe is clear, surely this is, and many, I trust most, Afghans rightly regard it as terribly shameful and wrong. Nor is repugnance toward such acts thwarted by ideological boundaries. In a meeting with the Dominican monks of Latour-Maubourg, the atheist philosopher Albert Camus confessed his abhorrence against a universe “in which children suffer and die.” While he recognized his own general impotence against the sometimes overwhelming degree of human malevolence in the world, he knew what must be done, “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it.” He lamented, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” Speaking to his Christian audience he insisted, “If you don’t help us, who else in the world can?”
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest person. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken today.
Whatever one’s religious commitments, there are some things that we can’t not know –some things against which all people of good will are natural allies. The rape crisis is getting the attention it has recently garnered precisely because a variety of U.S. military personnel have said “No!” and have chosen to fight against, and to suffer the professional consequences for doing so, against the torture of children. For them, this is why the were in Afghanistan in the first place. Captain Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for the serial rape of a young boy, insisted, “The reason we were [there] is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights. But we putting people into power who would do things that were worse than [what] the Taliban did.” Because he stood against this practice, Quinn was relieved of command and retired from the Army.
Quinn, of course, did nothing wrong: when nothing else will stop the raping, violence must. Christians ought to be the first to assert this. Whatever Jesus meant when he said to turn the other cheek, he didn’t mean we are to avert our eyes to moral evil or that we should seize the assaulted child by his hair and turn his cheek to the torturer. Problems like child rape in Afghanistan must force the Christian pacifist to accept that he is not actually choosing non-violence over violence – he is choosing the predator’s violence against children over the violence that could be brought to bear against the predator to stop him. Principled stands against evil that end in prayer but no effective action are useless in the face of those with teeth and claws and a taste for kids.
On the other extreme, there will be some who insist I am arguing for values over national interests. There are times, they say, when the realist recognizes we must partner with unsavory people or regimes in order to achieve some greater good – as was the situation when the U.S. aligned with Stalin to defeat Nazism. But, no. Partnering with those Afghans with a predilection for raping children is different and demonstrates that the gap between values and interest is, at least sometimes, an absolute illusion.
Our alliance with Stalin had the limited purpose of saving Europe from Fascism. We did not endorse Stalin nor Stalinism – we endorsed the crushing of Hitler. With Stalin, we played the long-game: defeat Hitler first and then, as might be recalled, enter into a contest to overcome the fruit of Stalinism. And we did so.
In Afghanistan, however, we are endorsing the local analogy to Stalin, precisely so. We are training and nurturing child rapists to take the lead in governing the people around them. Bearing the sword of the government, the police and military commanders are delegated the sovereign responsibility of maintaining justice, order, and peace for all people. But in aligning ourselves with those who rape kids we have made a mockery of sovereignty for all with the eyes to see. We have fashioned the social order such that the laws in Afghanistan cannot protect children from rape because it is those who uphold the law who are doing the raping.
In ignoring the problem, what have we taught the rapists about the use of power? Against our better interests, they are learning that power is about personal gain, they learn that power is good for indulging the libido dominandi – the lust to dominate others. They learn to pervert power.
In ignoring the problem, what have we taught those Afghans who are told that in a well-ordered society citizens submit to the structural authorities over them? What do local leaders learn about the trustworthiness of America leadership when they see brave American soldiers punished and sent away for trying to protect local children? It is a mark of the tragedy that local tribal leaders have lately taken to reflecting aloud that at least the Taliban outlawed bacha bazi – the beasts kept other beasts from the door. Surely, we must admit, when our inaction breeds in Afghan parents a nostalgia for the Taliban, we are working against our national interests.
Worse still, in telling our warfighters to ignore the problem, what we have taught them? When we punish those in our ranks for protecting kids, we are betraying them. I have written here about moral injury – about doing or allowing to be done those things that go against deeply held moral convictions. But there’s more to it: clinical research has shown that moral injury can be compounded when warfighters feel betrayed by those in positions of authority over them by being ordered to do or to allow to be done those things that go against moral conviction. In telling them to stand down, we are making hash out of all the reasons we have claimed they are fighting in Afghanistan. In compelling them to stand by while children are raped, what are we doing to their souls?
Against those who fear that forcibly ending the practice of bacha bazi will lose us the only allies we have in the fight against the Taliban I say nonsense: protect the children of Afghanistan and see who rises up to stand with us. Hearts and minds! We must heed Camus’ challenge. If not as Christians then as Americans we should speak out, loud and clear, and voice our condemnation in such a way that Afghans will never doubt, never have the slightest reason to doubt, that America stands against those who would torture children. In ending the rapes, we can demonstrate what we mean when we insist that after America there is no better friend and no worse enemy.
As it is, we may already be seeing the costs of not protecting Afghan children. Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. shared his troubles with his father in a telephone call home. From his bunk in his Afghan base, he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they had brought to their barracks. “At night we can hear them screaming,” he told his father, “But we’re not allowed to do anything about it.” His commander’s insistence that he look the other way may have been a factor in Buckley’s death. A young Afghan, a chai boy of a notorious rapist, entered the gym where Buckley and two other Marines were working out and shot the unarmed men to death. The boy’s abuser had a list of complaints against him but nothing had ever been done.
I do not know the boy’s murderous motives. But surely if compassion for our suffering Muslim neighbor is a part of the antidote against his becoming infected with hateful ideologies of jihad, then leaving him to fester in his suffering is a surefire means of leaving him susceptible to it.