U.S. troops at the site of an explosion in Kandahar on May 19, 2011, while civilians look on.
Talking to its enemies is not something that has ever come easily to America, a country that believes in good and evil, black and white, with few shades of gray. Nevertheless, that’s the way most wars end. And as President Obama has at last acknowledged, it’s the way the 10-year war in Afghanistan must and should end.
Think back to an even bloodier conflict in another faraway land. In early 1968 the U.S. Army and Marines won a famous victory at great cost against an insurgent army’s mass assault. But the dean of American television journalists, Walter Cronkite, wasn’t fooled by the defeat of the Tet Offensive. Touring South Vietnam that February, he soon concluded that, contrary to U.S. generals’ optimistic predictions, the best military outcome America could hope for was a bloody stalemate. On Feb. 27, 1968, he went on the CBS Evening News and told the American people that “the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who have lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” His wise words caused a political earthquake. Within a few weeks, President Johnson had decided not to run for reelection and had launched what became the Paris peace process.
The Army had not yet unraveled from an esteemed institution into a dreaded group when Myo Myint chose to become a soldier. His tasks were to lay landmines to blow up ethnic minority forces and try to detect the enemy’s own mines. During those years, which are evoked in the documentary with graphic footage—smuggled out of the country by dissident groups—of military assaults on ethnic minority villages, Myo Myint says commanders “brainwashed” the soldiers into committing gruesome attacks. Homes were burned to the ground; unarmed villagers were used as human shields. The generals told the soldiers “the ethnic armies and the democracy protestors are enemies of the state [and] killing them is your duty,” Myo Myint says by phone from Fort Wayne, Ind., where he sought asylum in 2008. “Some soldiers, in private, oppose the actions they are told to do. But they don’t dare say this.”