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During America’s war against the Vietnamese, one of the common plaints of the soldiers in the jungle was that one couldn’t tell the "enemy" from a "friend". Eventually, this inability to differentiate turned to a frustration that changed the rules of engagement, at least unofficially. No longer were there enemies and friends among the Vietnamese. […]
Confusing the Face of the Enemy
by Ron Jacobs

During America’s war against the Vietnamese, one of the common plaints of the soldiers in the jungle was that one couldn’t tell the "enemy" from a "friend". Eventually, this inability to differentiate turned to a frustration that changed the rules of engagement, at least unofficially. No longer were there enemies and friends among the Vietnamese. They all became the enemy to the GI in the field. It was this type of consciousness that led to atrocities like the one that happened in My Lai, where hundreds of women and children were massacred by Lt. Calley and his soldiers. Of course, many soldiers were never personally involved in slaughter on the scale of My Lai, but virtually every GI who fired a weapon in the jungle in Vietnam lives with the uncertainty of who he really killed-innocent or enemy.

As the war in Afghanistan continues, the likelihood of a similar scenario developing grows ever more likely. Already, US forces have mistakenly killed Afghanis involved in smuggling (a common way of making a living in the mountains of the region), thinking they were Taliban fighters intent on killing US soldiers. Other so-called mistakes have been made when villages were bombed because Taliban and Al-Queda fighters were believed to be residing there. When the dust had settled, however, it was discovered that only civilians had been killed by the US bombs. An American GI was recently quoted in the Washington Post when asked about his mission "That’s one of the frustrating parts of being over here," Eddy said later with a sigh. "You can’t tell who’s who."(5/18/02)

Besides a confusion based on the inability of foreign troops being unable to distinguish friend from foe due to the fact that they all seem to dress the same, there is the lack of understanding of local customs. A recent US helicopter attack on an Afghani wedding that killed several of the celebrants is one example. When asked about this action, the US military spokesman first tried to defend the action as a legitimate target because there had been gunfire and " That kind of behavior is not indicative of a wedding." When I was a kid in Pakistan, I went to a wedding of a Pakistani friend of the family and after the couple was married and the celebration begun, most of the men in attendance fired their weapons in the air several times. Indeed, it seemed that shooting weapons into the air was part of many a celebration in this part of the world.

Instead of acknowledging this, however, the US military is insisting that the target was legitimate and that "Taliban or Al-Queda" were killed. This uncertainty itself as to who was killed only emphasizes the potential of intentional mistakes such as these killings and others like it. Of course, in what can only appear even more callous than an admission that a mistake was made, the Pentagon stated that the military meant to kill the Afghanis identified as wedding celebrants by their relatives and friends. When one is on the ground in a war zone, the logic becomes one of survival. Politics do not matter much to a human who believes their life is in danger no matter what uniform s/he is wearing. The only thing that matters is killing the person who wants to kill you. Killer or corpse-neither is a desirable option.

If for this reason and no other, the US-led foreign forces must leave Afghanistan and every other place they currently roam in their attempt to keep the "natives in their place." When US troops are not in foreign countries, they don’t get killed by fighters opposed to their presence there. It’s as simple as that. Similarily, if the United States stopped supporting the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the likelihood of a terror attack on the US by groups or individuals supporting the liberation of Palestine would decrease to virtually nothing. This is not a difficult dynamic, nor is it lacking in sense. Indeed, the current dynamic which insists on maintaining (and in some cases expanding) the US military presence around the globe and backing Israeli expansionist policies both morally and financially is the policy which lacks sense. There is little doubt that it is this imperial approach to the world that endangers us regular folks, whether we wear a uniform or not.

Ron Jacobs can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu