What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Lt. Murphy story, Afghan shepherds and COIN

It keeps surprising me how diversely people can interpret events. So it is this time with people having their own, rather overpoliticised interpretation of SEAL Lieutenant Michael Murphy's story. Here's a link to CNN for one brief outline of what happened, but I'll also sum it up, and then just point to those peculiar interpretations I mentioned.
Basically, this is it. Lt. Michael Murphy, with the rest of his four-man crew, was on something like a reconnaissance mission, looking for a Talib leader on June 28, 2005, in Kunar province. They were in a hidden position on a mountain when they were spotted by local men, shepherds, and then presumably those people warned the Taliban in the area about the SEALs' presence. The special forces unit was subsequently attacked by a large force from several directions, and, inevitably, after putting up a determined fight, in which Lt. Murphy showed much courage in trying to protect his men and save the mission, they all fell, three of them dead, one of them wounded. That one, latter member of the team did survive, though, to tell his story, so the most comprehensive account of it all might be told in this book.
One of the most interesting twists in the story is how some local people were the ones who actually saved the lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, who "was blasted over a ridge by a rocket-propelled grenade and knocked unconscious, according to the report (by the Navy on the incident - P.M.). Despite suffering a bullet wound to one leg, shrapnel wounds in both legs and three cracked vertebrae, he managed to crawl away from the fight." The villagers who found him gave him shelter, and didn't hand him over to the Taliban, although the latter demanded that more than once (Marcus Luttrell talks about his experience in an interview you can watch following the link).
This is a particularly noteworthy incident for two more specific reasons. A Chinook helicopter with Navy and Army special forces sent to rescue Lt. Murphy's team was shot down, and all sixteen soldiers on board died, which made it an unusually lethal day for the U.S. in Afghanistan. (According to a Wikipedia article that uses no reference in this specific instance, the helicopter may not have been shot down, but instead an incoming RPG blew up inside it, as the back ramp had already been lowered, for the soldiers readying to disembark I suppose). The other specific reason why this incident continues to receive attention is that recently Lt. Murphy was posthumously (in October, 2007) awarded the Medal of Honor, something rarely given nowadays.
So here's a collection of a particular strain of interpretations via one blog. This sort of interpretation stresses that killing the Afghan goat herders who, just by chance, spotted the SEAL team, just to make sure they don't tell anyone about their presence, would have been a bad decision by the soldiers (I should note that the soldiers actually had a vote on that question), but then this narrative typically presents not having made that bad decison as both a value and as a liability for U.S. soldiers at the present and for the future. Which implicitly might aim at creating doubt whether being ethically this correct is actually tenable. The author of the referred blog says:
"Because the U.S. military trains ethics and moral codes to its soldiers, and because soldiers usually adhere to those ethics, soldiers are at greater risk of death and injury because when faced with the moral dilemma of erring on the side of caution for themselves or a civilian, they usually choose the latter."
A former Army officer apparently wrote a letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, titled "If Lt. Murphy Had Been a Cold-Blooded Killer" - again, it repeats just about exactly the above schematised pattern of thought.
Moreover, at a presidential press conference at the White House, a military aide, while not mentioning a choice about whether or not it would have been appropriate to kill the goat herders who spotted the SEAL team, simply said that "Murphy's team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers." Which doesn't reproduce the pattern of thought highlighted here as such, but still can be viewed as implicit reference to it, in the way it takes the presumption (it's likely but it's still a presumption), that the goat herders warned the Taliban, for granted, by referring to them as effectively a part of the enemy.
I of course haven't yet said anything about the insurgents' perspective here (which could be quite remarkable given how they very much endeavour to shape perceptions of the moral conflict favourably to them), and, more importantly from a humanitarian perspective, I haven't yet said anything about the shepherds' perspective.
Maybe the shepherds were die-hard Taliban and just taking some time out herding goats (forgive me for the absurdity of what I'm writing here, it's just that I'm using rhetorical means trying to make my argument more effective). But imagine that actually even if they weren't die-hard Taliban, the shepherds could have warned insurgents (if that is indeed what they did, and it wasn't an insurgent spotter in a position somewhere else on that mountain who gave the warning).
What the shepherds saw that day was a small unit of U.S. special forces hiding possibly quite near their village, while there might have been insurgents down there in their village. So might they have been a little concerned that possibly some air strikes were about to hit their village? I'm afraid they might have been. Regarding villagers' relationship to insurgents in general, skeptical readers might want to consult Afghanistanica's post titled "Afghan Villagers Love Men With Guns..."
So, why do I think all this could have been of note for this blog?
Well, for one reason, the incident and its interpretation by some shows how difficult it is, under the effect of emotions, to avoid thinking enemy-centrically, which, as pointed out by many by now, is rather counterproductive in counterinsurgency (and thus, under some circumstances, may be immoral and impractical at the same time - with a choice between the latter two adjectives being illusory only).
P.S.: This might raise the tricky issue of concretely what sort of brave deeds soldiers are supposed to be awarded for in a counterinsurgency? If you have a comment to make, don't hold it back.

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