The New Yorker, March 2, 2011
Nine Boys and a War:“The head of a child was missing”
"The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs…. We tried to find the body pieces and put them together..."
By Amy Davidson
Ten boys went out to gather firewood in a valley in Afghanistan on Tuesday. Only one came home; his name is Hemad, and this is what he had to say, as quoted in the Times ():
We were almost done collecting the wood when suddenly we saw the helicopters come…. There were two of them. The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting. They fired a rocket which landed on a tree. The tree branches fell over me and shrapnel hit my right hand and my side.
Nine children were killed by a NATO helicopter attack on March 1, 2011 in Kunar, Afghanistan. (Photo: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images & PAN)
Hemad said that the branches hid, and so saved, him; that was a giving tree. Not so his friends: the people in the helicopter, he said, “shot the boys one after another.” Hemad is eleven years old. (So, as it happens, is my own child.) The others were between the ages of nine and fifteen; the nine-year-old wouldn’t even have been born when we went into Afghanistan, in 2001. One boy, who was fourteen, was the sole breadwinner for his mother and his dead father’s other wife, and his many sisters, according to an uncle. (The same man described what villagers found on the scene: “The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs…. We tried to find the body pieces and put them together. As it was getting late, we brought down the bodies in a rope bed.”)
The shooters in the helicopter, American troops based in the Pech district—but not for much longer; we have decided to give up on it—may not have been so much older. General Petraeus has already apologized for this incident, calling it a tragedy and saying that he’ll find out how things got mixed up (the helicopter was looking for whoever had fired on the about-to-be abandoned base). Maybe these things happen in wars, but that is why one needs to constantly wonder whether a war like this makes sense, what it’s for, where it’s headed, and whether we should just keep going when we can’t remember the answers to those questions.
Do we know the costs, or even understand our own losses? The Washington Post () has a moving piece about Lieutenant General John Kelly and his son Robert, a lieutenant who was was killed in Afghanistan when he stepped on a mine; Robert was twenty-nine. From the Post:
“We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war,” [General Kelly] said in an e-mail. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”
And yet those families, the ones with connections to the military, are increasingly isolated. This is one of Kelly’s concerns, the Post notes, which he expressed in a speech in St. Louis:
“We are in a life-and-death struggle, but not our whole country,” he told the crowd. “One percent of Americans are touched by this war. Then there is a much smaller club of families who have given all.”
He spoke of the anger that some combat veterans feel toward the war’s opponents. “They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs and even their lives,” he said.
Later, he clarified in an interview that he is opposed to indifference, not dissent. “I just think if you are against the war, you should somehow try to change it,” he said. “Fight to bring us home.”
That is a very reasonable injunction. (Another one, which Kelly sent to his son, in a letter before he died, was to not let his men “ever enjoy the killing or hate their enemy…. Combat is so inhumane; you must help your men maintain their humanity.”) The Post piece closes with General Kelly at a medal ceremony for one of his son’s men, who lost an arm in Afghanistan:
Kelly watched from across the room. “They are kids,” he whispered. “Look at them. They are just kids.”
Kids who maybe should get to come home.
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