Last week, The New York Times ran several stories detailing how US soldiers were told to ignore the sexual abuse of boys by Afghan allies. Before one Marine, Lance Corporal Buckley, was killed, he told his father he could hear Afghan police officers sexually abusing boys they brought to the base. Some boys were kept as sex slaves. The Marine’s father told a reporter for The New York Times, “My son said his officers told him to look the other way because it’s their culture.” The Marine’s father didn’t appear to buy the “culture” explanation allegedly offered by his son’s chain of command.
As a physician who works on sexual violence issues in areas affected by conflict and unrest, I was angered by the mere possibility that the US military invoked “culture” to excuse sexual violence.
Though we all must stand against abuses, our leaders – whether in the military or elsewhere – are especially culpable. And we must hold them accountable.
Under international law, when rape is used as a weapon of war, it is considered a war crime, punishable in the International Criminal Court. Commanders can be held accountable even if they do not directly commit the abuse. Some military spokespersons appear to be drawing a distinction between crimes committed against these young boys and other forms of sexual violence committed during wartime.
Meanwhile, more and more stories are emerging about how the US military is turning a blind eye to violence committed by American-backed commanders against boys, girls, and women.
What is the message our military sends when it looks away from abuses against children?
In many cases, it’s alienating and self-defeating – because this isn’t about culture. It’s about abuses of power. That’s what sexual violence is. That’s what all forms of violence are.
There is no room for moral relativism here. The ends don’t justify the means. And in this case, the means could have led to a tragic end, including retaliation against US soldiers. The US military is now facing allegations from Lance Corporal Buckley’s father that US policy factored into the murder of Lance Corporal Buckley and his fellow Marines – by one of the boys who was being abused. When I watched the Marine’s father on CNN, the mercy and empathy he showed for the boy was both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.
This and other crimes of complicity need to be investigated and members of the military who stifled soldiers’ concerns need to be punished. Accountability should extend all the way up the chain of command.
After all, what message are we sending to people around the world when we won’t protect the most vulnerable from the worst kinds of violence and abuse?