WASHINGTON -- Two shocking world events that occurred this week, at almost the same hour -- the American burning of old Qurans at Bagram military base in Afghanistan, and the death of respected American war correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria -- are oddly related.
It may not seem so at first. The war correspondent was a seasoned journalist who had seen far too many wars. The burning of old, ragged Muslim holy books was done by as-yet unknown American soldiers who had no idea what they were doing. But when you dig down to the basics, there is a kernel of truth in each tragic situation.
Both are stories of Americans overseas, doubtless believing they are doing the right thing but each employing totally different methods. After Colvin's and a French photographer's deaths, Syrians held up huge signs, praising them as saints for what they had done to help the Syrian people. After the Bagram incident, thousands of Afghans mobbed the base and others across the country, killing seven as of this writing and burning effigies of President Obama.
Once again, and this time with special drama, we are faced with the crucial question of what America's place in the world should be. In a presidential election year in which the Republican candidates should be fiercely debating our unnecessary wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, politicians are now arguing for going into Iran instead of learning from our transparent disasters.
Only sardonic and wise Ron Paul speaks angrily against the wars, asking the question that remains eternally unanswered: "Why on earth are we there?" And the Republican debates go on, the contestants smiling generously at Paul, with more talk about what to do in Iran. (The recent issue of Commentary magazine actually asks this question on its cover: "Can Iran Be Saved?")
But let us start with Marie Colvin and her motivations, ones that obviously won her the love of the Syrians around her.
Born on Long Island and graduated from Yale, she had worked for the London Times for many years when she was killed. She believed in the foreign correspondent's work. In a speech last year in London, honoring those killed in action, she said: "Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?"
Her intentions were bolstered by her bravery -- the uncomfortable type. She came in from Lebanon, climbed fences into Syria in the night, somehow got through the huge ditches the Assad regime had dug around parts of Homs, rode rebel trucks through the dangerous city as it was being bombed by Syrian artillery and finally reached a patched-together "press center" of the rebels in a constantly bombarded neighborhood.
It was there, as she wrote about the terror -- people in basements, babies dying before her eyes, Syrians "cold, hungry and frightened" -- that bombardment by the government never stopped. One day before she was to leave and go home, she and the French photographer, Remi Ochlik, died just yards from the door that could have saved them.
I would suggest that her name will go down -- like those of so many correspondents, missionaries, doctors, U.N. people and all those "in between," people who never lift guns but are nevertheless out there -- as the "beloved American."
Only two countries away, the very Afghans at Bagram and elsewhere in Afghanistan who were supposed to be our friends and allies were the ones shouting "Death to the Americans" and "We don't want them." Of course, the American military command apologized -- nobody would actually believe they WANTED this -- and said they were starting cultural training for troops.
Starting cultural training? After 10 years? I could rest my case right there.
Because of the special Muslim feeling against outsiders, and now especially against Americans because of the bases and military incursions into the Middle East, there was never any chance that we could effectively "win" in Afghanistan. Just ask the British. Indeed, every American or Western European soldier deployed in Afghanistan only assured that more Afghans would hate them.
After many years working as a foreign correspondent, I don't think foreign cultures can be truly learned. But what can be learned are manners. What those GIs at Bagram (if, indeed, they were the guilty ones) should surely have been taught, if our government and our military want to continue their costly and foolish adventures everywhere in the world -- is a simple set or do's and don'ts:
(1) DON'T do this; (2) DO do this, 3.) don't do this, EVER.
You don't have to understand the Quran to realize you shouldn't burn it. We didn't damn the Nazis for burning any one book; we damned them for burning books. In short, get generic.
In addition to my belief that you can't learn culture, I also agree with Ron Paul's position that we must stop our incessant, expensive and painful meddling in countries so different from ours.
"In between" people like Marie Colvin can do marvelous things, but if you read history, you know that, eventually, foreign armies always end up going home.