The U.S. Military’s #MeToo Reckoning That Wasn’t
Maj. Danny Sjursen, Feb 28, 2020 Opinion | TD originals
(Interjection – Sjursen’s normal practice of well-supported internal arguments seemed to me to fall apart in this piece. While his reference to female genital mutilation has been covered elsewhere in the U.S. based mass media, the mention of an “entrenched Afghan child-rape culture” left me wondering what was he talking about?? While his basic argument, as always, was and rightfully continues to be hypocrisies within the military and imperialistic America’s global presence, with that phrase he strayed across the line into local sociological phenomena, not — as far as I knew — referenced in this article or previously reported elsewhere. Therefore, I searched and came up with a detailed description of the practice that I’ve inserted at the end of his piece, entitled “‘Bacha Bazi’: Abuse of Afghanistan’s dancing boys persists despite ban,” starting on page 7.
Meanwhile, Sjursen again points out the often confusing inconsistencies between the West Point ideals and everyday military practices… very similar to my experiences with such inconsistencies even starting WITHIN my officer training period at Medina AFB, TX, where I was later demoted from SSGT to 2LT and instituting another period of my own disillusionment ~ Don Chapin)
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Everyone who enters the gate at West Point Military Academy must memorize and recite these words on their first day. Failure to follow that protocol, including the “nontoleration clause,” can mean expulsion. Even insufficient adherence to the spirit of said value system can earn one pariah status at the academy. Those who graduate after four years of academics, military training and “character-building” are expected to live by and imbue in their fellow soldiers the seven Army values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. In most official documents, these terms are literally capitalized. It’s an old system, one that both senior leaders and most junior officers have eagerly preserved. Yet in recent decades, the purportedly unstoppable force of military ethics has met a seemingly immovable object in the form of an entrenched Afghan child-rape culture (Ref: ‘Bacha Bazi’: Abuse of Afghanistan’s dancing boys persists despite ban, on page 7, below).
Because in that morally trying case, in which senior “leaders of character” regularly told their troopers to ignore the local practice (and occasionally punished those who refused), the U.S. military chose tactical expedience (or desperation) over virtue. And while what unfolded may not technically qualify as a violation of the honor code, tolerance of rape has nonetheless brought disgrace upon the entire U.S. military.
The American-Afghan child sex scandal was briefly a major story in 2015, and it popped up periodically in the mainstream media through 2018. But if this story is slightly dated, it’s still worth remembering that the practice in rural Afghanistan has been an open secret among U.S. soldiers for decades. Heck, I myself was shamelessly invited by local village elders to such a hashish-smoke- filled bacha bazi party just weeks into my deployment back in 2011 (I politely passed). So well-known was this not-so-secret rape culture that soldiers regularly joked about their own (usually tangential) introduction to its existence.
Ironically and instructively, this story got little to no attention at the height of the #MeToo movement. In a way, it’s understandable. How does one compare comedian Louis C.K’s admittedly abhorrent transgressions with a national policy to don veritable blindfolds amid a perennially losing war? Perhaps the more egregious crimes of the just-convicted Harvey Weinstein offer a better source of comparison.
It’s a weighty question that I’m asking, with few easy answers. But it seems to me that the nation’s willingness to disregard rampant rape overseas, as well as our own attempts to cover the whole thing up, ought to have ranked as a national scandal of the first order. That it didn’t raises serious questions about the foundation and execution of America’s ongoing wars of “freedom advancement.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that it become U.S. policy to deploy its military anywhere and everywhere another society’s sexual practices don’t jibe with our own, even when they are, by most any measure, deplorable. No matter our intentions, to do so would betray both a demigod-level national ego and smack of the presumptive cultural supremacy that many progressives rightly abhor.
As a practical matter, policing global bad behavior has, historically, proven untenable, unwinnable and, frankly, unaffordable. While traversing the earth to stamp out such deeply unsettling local customs as “honor” killings, state executions of accused female adulterers, and female genital mutilation might feel ethical, it’s certainly not efficacious. Such well-intentioned transnational crusading would get awkward fast, placing Washington at odds with ostensibly key regional allies, either their governments or large segments of their societies.
Pakistan, which has an estimated 1,000 honor killings annually, Saudi Arabia, which still beheads, crucifies or stones women to death for adultery, witchcraft and sorcery, and Egypt, home of Donald Trump’s favorite dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, where 91% of females aged 15 to 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation, are just a few of the countries on this list. And when was the last time Washington let a little bad behavior by one of “our” autocrats get in the way of its perceived national economic or geopolitical interests?
The blindfold Uncle Sam has donned for decades in Afghanistan raises a question whose answer is so discomfiting and consequential that it should shake the American warfare state to its core: What can be said about a nation that invaded broad swaths of the world to promote a “Freedom Agenda” while instructing its soldiers to tolerate abuse on a massive scale?
I offer two conclusions: The architects of these ongoing wars never meant what they said about freedom, liberty and democracy; and the actual process of this cynical crusading has proven messy at best and hopeless at worst.
Not to give him a pass by any means, but George W. Bush just might have believed his own propaganda. He was one of America’s very worst presidents, responsible for the deaths of perhaps 1 million people. But in hindsight, I think the guy was more sincere than his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Call me a traitor to my political class, but he might even have been more of a true believer than his successor, Barack Obama.
That said, it seems clear that Bush’s foreign policy (and all recent administrations’ overseas agendas, to one extent or another) was dominated by petty Pentagon brass, defense corporation money men and elite national security advisers — in W’s case, a triumvirate brain trust of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. Together, these groups represent the three Bs — the brains, brawn and billions behind systemic American militarism.
During the Bush years, the three Bs largely worked in the shadows, never buying that freedom malarkey for a second. For these true movers and shakers, this rhetoric provided a polite veneer for a brutal imperial project and a means to an end. Sentimentality might have suited their boss, but these players prayed at the rather secular pulpit of power. It should have been obvious from the start that the “war on terror” was always about profits over purity. Just five days after 9/11, Cheney told us on live TV that to win the not- yet-begun military campaign ahead, the U.S. would “have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.”
As the wars unfolded over the next 20-some years, the executive branch called all the plays, with a clutch assist from the K Street lobbying industry. Congress, the courts and cable TV were reduced to glorified observers, hardly more engaged than a cowed common citizenry.
Each faction had something to gain from recharged imperialism. The brains got to play God and fulfill their twisted, hegemonic dreams to shape the world, all while a sizable evangelical crowd believed the rapture was at hand. Just across the Potomac in Arlington, the brawn got to advance its military priorities, its officers and generals walking freely through the revolving door separating the Pentagon from K Street lobbying firms. As for the billions, these merchants of death have seen their profits soar. No doubt they consider them a fair fee for services rendered to Team Caesar back on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that our hegemonic mission would prove messy, if not completely hopeless. Power-projection and its requisite prolonged military occupations are difficult and morally murky by their very nature. The brawn ought to have grasped this much implicitly. Whether these generals did or even cared are different matters altogether.
In military schools from West Point to the United States Aermy Command and General Staff College to the United States Army War College, students are all but taught to worship at the altar of Carl von Clausewitz, and with good reason. Having observed the horrors of combat in the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian veteran-turned-military strategist declared existing martial theories formulaic, deductive and utterly inadequate. He concluded that war was chaos, best characterized by friction, fallibility and uncertainty (it was von Clausewitz who coined the phrase “fog of war”). All attempts to fully control combat — the perennial desire of the brains — ultimately leads to naught but frustration and failure.
Regarding America’s still-trucking freedom agenda that isn’t, von Clausewitz might caution: Be careful what you start; you never know what might unfold, or what new, unforeseen problems your actions might induce. Which brings us to Afghanistan. The child- rape epidemic may be the most nauseating and frankly absurd Frankenstein’s monster of unforeseen quandaries that our foreign policy has yet produced. In Clausewitzian terms, it poses an ethical friction, a moral fog of war.
Because invasions and occupations are inherently messy, the brains have created for the brawn a strategic Catch 22: It can look the other way so as not to alienate prominent Afghan village elders and thereby drive them into the Taliban’s welcoming arms, or it can try to live up to its mission’s lofty rhetoric. In hindsight, expecting all of these armed Boy Scouts to look the other way was always a pipe dream.
If #MeToo taught us anything, it’s that no secret stays in the shadows forever. Cover-ups are eventually exposed; societal blindfolds inevitably slide off. When punishments were meted out to a handful of soldiers who refused to “tolerate” rape, briefly capturing the attention of the media, it was the brawn that was left holding the proverbial bag. The brains, ironically, played dumb and reverted to the tried-and-true excuse that they just defer to the generals on the ground. The billionaires were nowhere to be found. If pressed, their polished PR men stuck to the industry’s stock answer: “We just provide the beans and the bullets — don’t look at us!”
So the story came and went, as all war-related news does these days. Even I shrugged at the time, busy with other research subjects and thinking, regrettably, “What else is new?” What coverage the scandal did get was, predictably, surface-level and mainly missed the relevant point. Discussion centered on what exactly the U.S. military policy toward the repulsive local practice should be, with the usual soap opera-style questions about who was and/or should have been punished. There seemed to be little appetite to reflect on what the scandal suggested about the whole forever-war enterprise, even as the #MeToo movement has demanded we reconsider our patriarchal institutions at home.
We shouldn’t be surprised. For going on two decades, Americans have remained impassive as Uncle Sam and its putative allies have pillaged the region. What’s another human travesty?
‘Bacha Bazi’: Abuse of Afghanistan’s dancing boys persists despite ban
By Eden Gillespie
In Afghanistan, boys as young as nine are forced to dress up as women and dance for older men, only to be raped after their performance. The practice continues despite being prohibited in February, with families powerless against those ‘pimping’ their children. Journalist Eden Gillespie investigates.
A young Afghan Bacha Bazi performs a dance in a private party on November 22, 2008 in a small city in the north of Afghanistan.
A shameful practice has plagued Afghanistan for centuries. One where boys as young as nine are forced to dress up as women and dance for older men, only to be raped after their performance, and are kept as concubines until the age of 20 .
It is referred to as Bacha Bazi or “boy play”. Rampant throughout all levels of Afghan society, an estimated one in ten Afghan boys are victims of this cultural blight.
Afghanistan finally criminalised Bacha Bazi in February, announcing perpetrators would face punitive measures but months later, little has changed. In lieu of a date of enforcement, the abuse of young boys continues, with families powerless against those ‘pimping’ out their children.
What is Bacha Bazi?
According to Bill Mankins, Former Lead Social Scientist of the US Army in Afghanistan, Bacha Bazi comes in two forms.
The first type of Bacha Bazi is a distinct and horrific form of sexual abuse where young boys are taken from their families and used as sex slaves. Mankins says that in several US raids Afghan boys have been found chained up and bleeding from sexual injures. In one case, Former US Marine, Miles Vining, recalls a boy being taken to the Helmand Province base to be stitched up by a medic from a severe sexual injury.
Somehow, the most extreme manifestations of the practice have been excused through the popular saying ‘women are for child bearing, boys are for pleasure’. The practice is so entrenched in Afghan society that it’s often referred to as a ‘cultural’ practice rather than as paedophilia.
This nightmarish sexual abuse is often triggered by ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. In some cases boys are molested to humiliate and dishonour their families, often as a form of retribution or vengeance for acts like a village rebelling.
This violence has little to do with sex and more to do with power.
“It is the ultimate power expressed through a physical, sexual capacity. It is like saying ‘my ethnic group over your ethnic group. I am going to do this thing that will emasculate you and take any masculine power away from you’,” Mankins says.
The second form of Bacha Bazi tows the grey line of a ‘consensual’ relationship between a young man and an older man. While the age gap may hint at a power imbalance between the two men, the relationship will appear like a mutual arrangement. As Social Anthropologist Ted Callahan says “Bacha Bazi in the latter sense is more like prostitution or hiring a stripper for a stag party, which is already illegal in Afghanistan yet still widespread”.
Bacha Bazi is so prevalent that it’s been reported occurring on US army bases, right under the nose of the West. Vining says that in his time in Afghanistan there were up to six young ‘bachas’ (boys) that accompanied Afghan soldiers on a small patrol base in Nawa district, Helmand Province. He recalls both a commander and executive officer had sexual relationships with their own bacha during his deployment. However, he says the bachas appeared to be of consenting age and so US soldiers did not intervene.
How has this practice persisted?
Bacha Bazi when likened to paedophilia or sex slavery has been aggressively condemned by not only NGOs and the international community, but by the Taliban. However, despite claiming a deep aversion to the practice and charging it with the death penalty in 1996, the Taliban have been accused of partaking in the practice. And so these exploitative dance parties, peppered by acts of molestation, continue to rage on behind closed doors.
In Afghanistan, local war lords enjoy an unprecedented amount of power over communities. These complicated power dynamics are one of the reasons why federal law has been relatively inconsequential in eradicating Bacha Bazi.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani gained popularity by allowing local communities to have relative autonomy. In the current political climate, negotiations between war lords and families are kept hard-fast, with the power of the word often superseding the power of the federal law.
War lords or ‘pimps’ are skilled in hand-picking the poorest and most vulnerable boys in their community to work for them as dancers. Around half of victims are illiterate and 87% of victims cannot attend school, a 2014 AIHRC report found. This makes the luring of boys dreadfully easy, allowing pimps to cosy up to families with illustrious promises of employment and education.
Often Bacha Bazi presents as a way out of economic malaise in Afghanistan’s employment drought. “The country’s in a state of desperation, so they don’t even think about tomorrow. They’re
thinking about now,” Professor Jasteena Dhillon, International Conflict and Development Expert says.
With many boys originating from extremely poor and rural farming communities, Bacha Bazi might seem like a promising escape from poverty. “In being a bacha to a local commander, they are fed well, they are dressed well, they are looked after, in exchange for being ‘Chai Boys’ or for sexual acts,” Vining says.
Most families are unaware of the severe sexual and physical abuse that comes with the job. The Human Rights Council has reported that victims often are beaten, with injuries including internal haemorrhaging, protrusion of intestines, throat injuries, heavy internal bleeding, broken limbs, fractures, broken teeth, strangulation, and in some cases, death. Unsurprisingly, the AIHRC found that 81% of victims want to leave the so-called ‘profession’ that masquerades as human trafficking.
But quitting isn’t easy and requires extensive bargaining with powerful war lords. In other situations, if a bacha returns, he may be shunned by his community.
“If you stand up to a war lord, if they have those connections, forget it. The family will make a calculation. ‘If I want to say no to a war lord and protect my boy, I need to get another war lord to protect me, and what do I need to give that other war lord? Maybe I have to marry one of my daughters to him’,” Professor Dhillon says.
How can Afghanistan stop Bacha Bazi for good?
Bacha Bazi is deeply embedded in Pashtun and southern Afghanistan culture, making it particularly challenging to address. As a result the government does not have the capacity to enforce criminalisation of the practice and very few perpetrators have been prosecuted.
In Afghanistan, power comes from the bottom-up, with the government’s word ranking relatively inconsequential. Instead, the source of truth originates from the law of god and that is what people generally believe should be followed.
It is by “honey rather than the barrel of a gun” that Mankins says change should occur. He argues that recruiting local mullahs and religious leaders to speak out about Bacha Bazi is key to ending the practice.
“In traditional societies, theocratic societies, they don’t believe that we the people can actually decide anything. When the government says anything people are like ‘who is the government to say anything? They’re not god, they can’t make laws’,” Mankins says.
In line with other experts, Professor Dhillon speaks from her own experience when she says that reform can only come over long-term debate and in-person negotiations with locals.
“This is a horrible practice and all attempts to justify it from a historical and cultural perspective are absolutely baseless. But the only way to address it is by painstakingly going into the community, writing reports and trying to speak to people. It’s going to be the only way culturally that this changes,” Professor Dhillon says.
The ideological division between the West and Middle East has severed opportunities for reform, failing to bring an end to Bacha Bazi. Issues of cultural imperialism and interventionism continue to be questioned, considering many Afghan officials are resistant to incorporate what they deem Western perspectives’.
“The way we’ve intervened has been so counterproductive. Issues like this have become caught up in this politics instead of being addressed for what they are. That created a situation where people were considered traitors in their own cultures and some people that would advocate to end these practices felt like they had to choose sides,” says Professor Dhillon.