Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sweet, Cruel April

It looks like we're getting through April relatively unscathed, but let's cross our fingers and hope that nothing catastrophic happens.  I include below some comments I wrote three years ago while serving as an Army intelligent analyst in Afghanistan.  I wrote a daily open-source report for troops and contractors in Bagram and various camps and firebases.

There’s something about April. It’s bittersweet. The pleasant showers wash away the muck and mire of a harsher season and provide a verdant catharsis for the soul. The flowers and trees start to blossom, giving silent and aromatic testimony in pastels to the promise of rebirth. But as the tulips around Bagram and the poppies of Sangin Valley bloom, so the Taliban and their suicide bombers spring up from remote hideouts. April is a time for killing. The Apocalypse broke out in Afghanistan at the beginning of the month, it seemed, as floods killed dozens of people and a 6.2 earthquake shook the northeastern part of the country. The end of the month goes out with a bang as well. Recently a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform killed almost a dozen people in Khost. In one fell swoop, a car bomb killed about 140 people in the Sadriya district of Baghdad a week ago, and another 60 died in other attacks that day. In part the insurgents were defiantly and tenaciously responding to the surge in U.S. troops in hopes of defeating the will of the American people and emboldening political opposition to the Bush administration. Just the other day two 30-ton bomb-laden trucks slammed into an outpost of the 82nd Airborne Division and killed nine paratroopers. To date, almost 90 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, a near-record high casualty count for a month.

Perhaps the Romans misnamed the fourth month after the goddess of love when they formed their calendar, for Mars the Bringer of War, who lends his name to the previous month, is more apt. In fact, we need a new deity called Genocidia, for it seems that the rapaciousness and horrendous bloodlust of humankind, or mankind rather, come to the fore in that month. It’s fitting that Raphael Lemkin, a Polish émigré and astute observer of mass murder through the ages, brought his new term “genocide” to the attention of American academics in a publication dated April of 1946.

Here’s a short catalogue of horrors. It was April of 1915, on the eve of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration, when Young Turks rounded up the elite of Turkey’s large Armenian minority and thereby ushered in the first genocide of the 20th century: the murder of almost two million Armenians by wholesale slaughter, rape and death marches. Four years later, on April 13, Sikh troops under British command massacred a large crowd of Indians gathering for a protest in the central square at Amritsar. Let’s jump to April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital of Phnom Penh at gun point and led their fellow Cambodians into the killing fields. More recently, the (third) Bosnian war erupted on 6 April 1992 when Bosnian Serbs started to shell Sarajevo, unleashing deep-seated hatreds that resulted in 200,000 deaths, horrific torture camps, a campaign of mass rape, and the entry of the term “ethnic cleansing” into our lexicon. Exactly two years later, the genocide in Rwanda commenced hours after assailants (probably Hutus) shot down a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda near Kigali airport (as so vividly portrayed in the gripping movie Sometimes in April); only Treblinka and Auschwitz could rival the subsequent hundred days of mass murder in the spring of 1994. And so April is a day of remembering. The Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day of April 24 is a national holiday in Armenia and other countries. Holocaust Memorial Day, based on the Hebrew calendar, fell this year on April 15 and kicked off a week of remembrance into the following Sunday.

This past month has not been disappointing on the domestic end. The slaying of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech University on April 16 by a deranged and disgruntled student named Seung-Hui Cho riveted the world’s attention and set a new record for campus massacres in the United States. A few days later we commemorated the anniversaries of the Waco Massacre (April 19, 1993), the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995), and the Columbine High School Massacre (April 20, 1999). These atrocities, whose dates are not coincidental, set new precedents for homegrown mass homicide.

Is there something about April? Am I being selective here? We could pick out other months, for ethnic cleansing and mass murder seem endemic to the human condition and slaughter is a yearlong preoccupation. Winston Churchill once wrote: “The story of the human race is war. Except for brief and precarious interludes there has never been peace in the world; and long before history began murderous strife was universal and unending.” So we have much to draw from. We could emphasize the hot months of summer when tempers rise. How about those fateful days in August of 1572 when thousands of Huguenots died by the sword in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and its aftermath? How about July of 1995 when Bosnian Serbs under General Ratko Mladic slaughtered 7,000 Bosnian boys and men in the UN “safe zone” of Srebrenica with the help of UN busses and in the presence of quiescent Dutch peacekeepers? How about November for Kristallnacht or January for the Wannsee Conference? But there’s still something about April.

Recently, the Senate is trying to get Bush to recall troops from Iraq by April of next year. I don’t want to address the controversy in setting a date for the withdrawal of troops, but if we do set a timeline we can expect a rather bloody April next year as well. Perhaps you are one of those optimists who affirm the inherent goodness of humanity and a belief in societal progress through rational discourse and technological advances. Well, I do not wish to disabuse of your sanguine outlook. You must scratch your head each time these acts of wanton killings occur, however, for you lack a paradigm of human depravity with which to assess them. I suspect you chalk it off to aberrant behavior by a few crazies and psychos. Then again, even you optimists in your heart of heart, I submit, intuit the underlying reality of our violent world. If only we would heed the words of Rodney King, who asked why we can’t get along in the wake of the Los Angeles Riot in late April, 1992. To be sure, we ought to set our hearts upon the vernal qualities of rebirth, reconciliation and resurrection; but don’t be deceived. Between the canopy of blue and the florid blanket of earth lurk “aprilian” reminders that wake us from our reverie and forcefully divert our thoughts to this vale of tears: a world of machete-wielding génocidaires and grim-faced Taliban insurgents.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land