The media is rife with articles about the tragic event in Panjwai, Afghanistan, where a U.S. soldier massacred 17 Afghan civilians on March 13. Many pundits are weighing in on the obvious questions: What happened? Now what?
The answers, of course, are mostly vacuous and designed to placate the public and boost media ratings. Nobody wants to face the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth, which has actually been gifted to us over the years in our tattered and dusty literature. In his 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, John Steinbeck famously said, “The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.” Here are a few notable authors who, more than a century ago, evocatively weighed in on the current situation in Afghanistan:
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelly obliquely delineates what happened at Panjawai when Victor Frankenstein, with seemingly virtuous motives, abuses his intellectual and technological prowess and creates a kind of superman who cannot find its humanity within a world of inhumanity and rebels by killing innocent men, women, and children. Victor Frankenstein, who had earlier abandoned his creation because it was ugly, has no choice but to hunt the monster down and kill it, although he is unsuccessful and succumbs to the rigors of his pursuit. The answer to the what of the Panjawai massacre is palpable in this archetype. The United States, commissioned by society, creates soldiers to protect society. However, when these armor-chinked soldiers find themselves immersed in the inhumanity of war, some are apt to go awry and personify their savage environment. The creators have no choice but to destroy them. The solution is not to quit creating monsters because that is unrealistic. The solution is for the creators, not solely the monsters as everyone expects, to own up to the consequences in as meaningful and practical a way as possible which may allow humanity to evolve out of its wholesale ignorance and belligerence.
Nathaniel Hawthorne shows us in The Scarlet Letter how to own up to the consequences of our behavior through atonement rather than through pedestrian, meaningless apology. The book displays how cowardice and vengeance only ever destroy their progenitors, and the untold soul-sapping wages of status quo. Hester Prynne, the story’s protagonist, commits adultery in 17th century Puritan Boston and spends the rest of her life atoning for her crime by facing the consequences with courage and dignity and by living an exemplary life. On the other hand, Hester’s clerical accomplice hides behind his sacrosanct robes and suffers from the guilt of his cowardice which eventually kills him. Her cuckolded husband becomes obsessed with vengeance and he literally and figuratively rots alive. And, the black and white clad Puritan townspeople, true to their mind-numbing religion, jump on the persecution bandwagon that rolls on and on. It is easy to see the Afghan parallel: If you are one who resorts to slinking off and leaving your accomplice holding the bag, if you are blindly bent on vengeance for life (double entendre intended), or if you have not altered your behavior in virtue but favor the instant apology in cheap, then you know your role in this story. If, however, you cannot find your place in the main cast, then you may necessarily be relegated to a prosaic stand-in as a member of the townspeople.
Now that we know the identity and details of the personal story of the soldier who allegedly committed the Afghanistan massacre, we wonder how it is possible that a reportedly kind, quiet, and benevolent young man who was, ironically, sensitive to the sufferings of civilians in war zones could go on a rampage and allegedly murder 17 innocent Afghans, including 9 children. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad takes readers on a journey up an unnamed African river deep into a primeval environment in search of the answer to that very same question. On one level, the story recounts the “company’s” commission of one Charlie Marlow to travel up river and return with ivory and a company agent named Kurtz, an extraordinary man who had gone “savagely” rogue. On a deeper level, the story is a metaphor for the progression of humankind’s return to savagery and propensity for evil when stripped of the raiments of civilization, an idea that crystallizes in Kurtz’ dying words: “The horror. The horror.” The Afghan massacre fits all too neatly into Conrad’s narrative. An exemplary soldier is commissioned by the U.S. military to go “repeatedly” into a hostile and savage environment where life is tenuous and unsanctified to do the work soldiers do, and he loses moral compass — for the sake of the Company’s Ivory.
Unfortunately, it is naïve to think the U.S. will end its mission in Afghanistan, or that the Afghan massacre will be the last atrocity of its kind. Sadly, in the interim, lone soldiers will have to carry the weight of collective sin — which is another oft used archetype.
But then who’s reading.