In one sitting this week I read Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants, a collection of stories by Canadian soldiers, doctors and aid workers about life at war. I cringed at the military rhetoric—hunting down enemies, cheering on the action (i.e. killing), thrilling over the power of weaponry—but I was moved by the sense of solidarity (and not simply fraternity), commitment to a cause, and the longing to return to Afghanistan (i.e. to war) after settling once again into the comforts (and dullness, as some admitted) of Canadian life.
I realized with some surprise as I read these very personal accounts, how easy it was for me to identify with these soldiers, despite my vehement opposition to war as a solution for anything. We hear poignant stories of Afghan children, of a growing love for the country and culture, and of heartwarming efforts by aid workers like Mike Frastacky, who established a school independent of any aid organization (and was killed for political reasons by an anti-government group). Mixed in with these stories, we read detailed accounts of various military operations, the deaths of “the enemy” mentioned casually, offhandedly. If we’re not looking for it, we may not even notice that anyone died in Afghanistan without purpose, without a great, incalculable, moral cause.
In one story bagpipes are brought out in the middle of a tense situation with Taliban fighters a kilometer away. U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers paused to listen and snap photos. In another, a female soldier writes to her family—in the weeks before her death—about how she negotiated cultural differences with the shocked Afghan elders encountering a married woman (without her husband!) in the army, and with the Afghan soldiers she astounded by hiking with the men for 10 km, up 2,000 feet, with 100 pounds of equipment on her back. We read this and smile, maybe remembering our own distant travels, as though we are reading a Lonely Planet guidebook about the adventures of backpackers everywhere.
Their moral certitude about their work, their pride in serving Canada (bestowed with a unified, monolithic identity that the rest of us may not see or care for), in the end persuades us all too easily. Ultimately, there is no discernible difference between the humanitarian workers, the doctors and the soldiers who are trained to kill. The seamlessness of these stories allows us to forget the humanity of the Afghan fighters—yes, even the Taliban are human (and let’s remember many are boys)—and to forget that there might be other ways to achieve this sense of solidarity and the adrenalin of battle. How easy to forget that killing is the goal.
Anyone who has ever been involved in a cause will recognize the solidarity and even euphoria it can inspire in the stories of soldiers longing to return to the life they had when they were at war. The intense desire for a purpose can pull us back into the most difficult, dangerous, even life-threatening situations.
Here is what Corporal Ryan Pagnacco (the bagpipe player) said at the end of his gripping tale of a near-death experience thanks to “friendly fire”: “Our brotherhood of warriors, the finest of men, has been forged in battle: baptized by fire and quenched in tears. We became, and will always be, a fraternity of blood with a bond stronger than death. I will remember always those few days when I truly lived and nearly died.” We should pay attention to the “stronger than death” bit. The thrill of war seems to arise there—in every triumph over death. This is why peacekeeping is considered to be quite boring to those who are trained to kill. And why there is a qualitative moral difference between a soldier’s story of life in Afghanistan, and a lonely aid worker’s.