Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

The Consequences of His Decision

Before I'm off to Hamburg, Germany (you need a change once in a while), some last thoughts on my trip to Afghanistan.
One morning, I sat outside a restricted area office on Kandahar Air Field and drank coffee with a young lawyer who worked for the Dutch army.
The coalition forces take lawyers with them to make sure that the “rules of engagement” are enforced, among other things. Of course, though, sometimes there is no time to contact the army lawyer before you start shooting.
The lawyer, named Niels, was in his late twenties. He said to me, “I'll give you an impression of what I'm doing here. A couple of days ago, our troops spotted a few Taliban from the air. The Taliban guys were busy with a funeral in some village. So the air force contacted me and asked, 'We recognize the Taliban guys, can we take them out?' So I answered, 'Are you sure these guys are the Taliban, and is it the right time to take them out while they're busy with a funeral?' Finally, I advised to wait until the Taliban were done with the funeral, and then we’d come back to take them out.” I couldn’t help smiling, because there was something hilarious about the monologue by this young lawyer. I was reminded of Buster Keaton's The General, and of Duck Soup by the Marx Brothers.
Not that I was blind to the tragic side of this story, but it was the absurdism, and the way the young lawyer dealt with it, that was much more forceful than the tragedy lurking behind it. (And I’m not in principle against taking out Taliban.)
Suddenly, the lawyer walked away. I guess they needed him to decide once more when the shooting could get started.
It was clear to me that there are places in this world where you can only survive by acting as a god. And when you start acting as a god, the temptation never leaves you.
This has nothing, or almost nothing to do with moral questions, because these questions have been answered by the politicians who sent the army in. My friend, the young lawyer, will never see the consequences of his decision. Maybe on television, hours, months, years later.
That makes it easier, I guess.