By Frank Wessling
War is ugly in so many ways. The last few weeks in Afghanistan have brought home to us how misunderstanding, stupidity, religious fervor, rage and vengeance can combine in a deadly war zone cocktail.
Afghanistan is a country populated almost 100 percent by adherents of the Islamic faith, known as Muslims. Among confiscated material taken by American troops to be burned at the Bagram military base last month were copies of the Koran, the book sacred to Muslims. Afghan workers at the burn site intervened, offering to take the Korans to local Islamic religious leaders for proper disposal. As news of this spread, it ignited massive protests that led to more than 30 Afghan deaths and the killing of several American soldiers.
The American commander, General John Allen, quickly apologized, declaring that there had been no intention of desecrating holy materials. President Obama also apologized. Those were appropriate responses; a mark of our effort to behave in a manner as civilized as possible even in the uncivil violence of war.
But how could any military commander at any level have given an order so stupid, so unthinking? We have been in a state of engagement with Islam and the sensibilities of Muslim populations for 10 years now. There should be no one in the military above the level of basic training who doesn’t realize that the Koran is not just a book. Even though Muslims may use it in what we consider unholy ways – to pass secret messages among prisoners of war, for example – we must respect it as sacred to them.
It is easy in the United States, too easy, to grow up without a sense of the holy; and without respect for religious practice, especially of people who may be so different from us in history and culture. This is a kind of ignorance that grows into large and small misunderstandings, including that war in Afghanistan with its cruelties and stupidities.