Marbles and war

As the war in Afghanistan appears to be on Obama’s front burner, here’s a column I wrote back in 2003:

Ever since I read about a missile attack by U.S. forces on a village in Afghanistan, I’ve been thinking about marbles and my childhood friend Khalid.

When I was nine years old, I lived in Bangkok, Thailand, and went to school with kids from all over the world: Gadi Plotnik from Israel, Ashim Segal from India, Sung-un Kim from Korea, and many others whose names I’ve forgotten. Khalid, who was from Afghanistan, was the captain of my soccer team.

Marbles were our favorite pastime on the athletic fields during recess. We didn’t play the official way, where you try to knock each other’s marbles out of the ring using a “shooter.” We had our own game. One of us would toss a marble into the grass, and the other would try to hit it. We took turns until someone hit the other boy’s marble. If you hit it, you got to keep it. Little boys with little missiles, in winner-take-all combat.

On Dec. 6, in an Afghan village, some boys were playing marbles when they were killed by rockets and gunfire from American planes. The attack was intended for an Al-Qaeda suspect, but our troops learned later that he hadn’t been in the village for weeks. It didn’t matter, because they missed his house. Locals say he was a motorcycle importer.

Nine children were killed in the attack. One of them was nine years old, the age Khalid was when I knew him.

When journalists and U.S. troops arrived to investigate, villagers were huddled around a pile of little hats and shoes. Marbles were scattered around the area. A 25-year-old man was killed, too. He had been in Iran digging wells and was getting married in a few days.

A Web site called “iraqbodycount.com” says at least 7,935 civilians have been killed in Iraq since the war began last spring. That’s a low-ball estimate based on a fairly thorough survey of world press accounts. In Afghanistan, the estimate was 3,000 to 3,400 civilians during the first few months of that war. The methodology of such body counts has been questioned and criticized, but there’s no better alternative out there. The Pentagon, which has the resources to make the best estimates, has said over and over again, “We don’t do body counts.” Why? Well, you figure it out.

It’s true that the Afghans are probably better off without the Taliban, and the Iraqis are probably better off without Hussein — or they will be eventually. But do the ends justify the means? Is Saddam’s head worth 7,000 civilian deaths? Will an unprecedented pre-emptive war cow the world into submission or make our enemies more dangerous than they were before?

The apparent murder of one young woman has some of our neighbors ready to execute every sex offender in the state. Imagine the outrage if a missile from a foreign power hit a schoolyard in Isle, killing nine children. And if 7,000 of our countrymen died in attacks by a foreign power, however well intentioned, would we welcome the invaders with open arms, accepting the sacrifice of our sons and daughters for a higher cause?

I saw the movie “Master and Commander” recently and was struck by how a graphic war movie can still leave you with the feeling that war is fun, like football, full of bravery and glory and male bonding.

Yesterday the whole world checked Saddam Hussein for head lice and peered into his mouth. Few people in history have been more deserving of such dehumanization, but as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking we’ve taken warfare from the gridiron to the wrestling ring, with the kind of taunting we might expect from our former governor.

It’s tempting to join in, but that pile of shoes and broken marbles reminds us that war is never worth celebrating, especially during this time of year. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. What a fantasy that was.

Issue date: December 17, 2003. ©Mille Lacs Messenger Inc.

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