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Remembering the Panjwai Massacre

 “Even if all forms of complicity are not equivalent, they are irreducible. The question of knowing which is the least grave of these forms of complicity is always there… but it will never dissolve the irreducibility of this fact.” – Jacques Derrida

March 11, 2014, marks the second anniversary of the Panjwai massacre, the slaughter and burning of 16 Afghan villagers, mostly women and children, by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. Numerous questions remain unanswered about what happened in those early morning hours of March 11. It is commonly believed and argued in Afghanistan and recounted by witnesses that Bales did not act alone. The U.S. Army still refuses to release its investigation into Bales’ commanding officers. At least, Bales is currently serving a life sentence in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, which is much more than can be said of the eight marines charged with the murders of 24 Iraqi civilians in the 2005 Haditha massacre. None of the eight marines was found guilty. Only Sgt. Staff Frank Wuterich was convicted of a single count of negligent dereliction of duty and suffered a rank reduction and pay cut.

There was something about the Panjwai massacre such that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Perhaps it was the depth of denial by Bales’ wife, the horrific targeting of children, or the immediate and overpowering government effort to dismiss the murders as an isolated act of a temporarily deranged individual. I stared at the close-up photographs in the newspaper of survivor, Haji Mohammad Wazir. How does one go on after the murder of one’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, wife, and six children? Will the villagers’ stories ever fully be heard, despite the valiant efforts of a few journalists? Are we even capable of hearing them? As reported in The Guardian (8/21/13), Wazir and other witnesses who flew in from Kandahar to testify against Bales last summer seemed anxious to be able to speak during the proceedings.

“‘There are things I’d like to speak about if I have the chance,’” Wazir said.

‘You can only answer questions,’ replied the judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance.

‘Does anyone have any more questions?’ the villager asked.

No one did.”

We forget these many anniversaries, from Haditha to Panjwai, because remembering them would crack the heavy defenses we have of our own complicity. There’s a long intellectual tradition of pointing out the near-universality of people’s complicity with war, slavery, and oppression. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Gayatri Spivak have all reminded us of our complicity in various forms of suffering as well as the specific responsibility of intellectuals to raise public awareness of violence and injustice and to question the structures of power in their writing of history. What does it mean to be complicit? It means not speaking up against injustice committed against others, especially when such injustice is done in our name. It means not recognizing our moral responsibility as human beings. When we refuse to be complicit, we stop fooling ourselves. It remains a big and open question as to whether that can mean passively resisting the structures that commit violence in our name or whether it means accepting the moral imperative to act.

As I write this, we do not know (and can never know) the true number of Afghan civilians that over 1,000 drone strikes have killed in the name of freedom and security. It remains undecided how many US troops are likely to remain in Afghanistan beyond this year to participate in NATO’s “Operation Resolute Support” and ultimately, as occupiers with broad immunities and rights to raid homes. Among other details, it also remains unclear what will be the future of US air bases in the country that are used to launch drone attacks in Pakistan.

In the spirit of facing our complicity, as spring arrives and we prepare to file our taxes, surely it is worth our humanity to take one moment to remember the harrowing murders on that day in a poor village in Afghanistan. From the investigative work of journalists Yalda Hakim and Lela Ahmadzai, we have first-hand accounts: In the predawn hours of March 11, 2012, southwest of Kandahar, US Army Staff Sergeant Bales left his camp, walked to a nearby village and opened fire into two houses. Some victims were shot inside and others were shot in the yard. Bales walked back to his base but somehow, was able to freely leave again for another village, where he shot and burned more residents.

An 8-year old girl who was shot in the leg by Bales, describes what she saw: “He was shooting. He shot my father’s dog first, and then shot my father in the foot. Then he dragged my mother by the hair. My mother was screaming, and he held a gun to her. And my father said ‘leave her alone.’ And then he shot him right there.” One witness recounted, “When [the victims] screamed, the small children were very scared, especially the 6-month old. When this child screamed, the American put his pistol in the child’s mouth.”

Wazir, who lost most of his family, described, “When they knocked on the door, my elderly mother came out and she was shot and killed at the door…And then they brought all the bodies and put them into one room. They took linens and blankets from the cupboard and put them on top of the bodies, and set them alight.” One woman tells of gathering her husband’s brain in a handkerchief. And ten-year old survivor recalls the last words of his father before he was killed and stepped on by Bales: “Have mercy!”

If these details make us sick at heart, it must be at least in small part for what we wish to ignore. This was not just the mental breakdown of a drunk and broken soldier, nor even the result of the systematic neglect and traumatization of veterans. It was one of many war crimes in a war begun in our names that we silently watched/ignored over thirteen years. Many of us, including the current President, never morally supported this war and would condemn such massacres in the strongest terms. Perhaps we felt powerless to act. But this doesn’t absolve us of our complicity. At the end of the day the Panjwai massacre happened because we as Americans allowed it to happen. Bales will sit in jail for the rest of his life (unless his sentence is changed), but it is we who bear the moral responsibility to remember what he did and to translate that consciousness into sound and action.

Z. Fareen Parvez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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