According to the Washington Apple Commission, Americans’ favorite apple varieties are the Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, and Granny Smith. But there’s another kind of apple that Americans can’t live without: the bad apple.
When I heard about the horrific killing of Afghan civilians by an American serviceman, my first thought was something along the lines of Rod Dreher’s: How can we possibly stay in Afghanistan after this? Even if you believe in the mission, which I don’t, we have definitely lost the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people (not that it was ever winnable) and, thus, efforts at counterinsurgency are an even bigger waste of time and resources.
The second thing I wondered was how long it would take for the massacre to be written off as just another instance of a “bad apple”? It didn’t take long. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all but used the expression when he said, “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.”
(“Incident?” That’s what you call the murder of nine children?)
I’m certain that some pundit or official will use the exact words “bad apple,” because that’s what they always do. Haditha, Abu Ghraib,urinating on corpses, and the latest atrocity in Kandahar are all said to be the work of “bad apples” (or words that effect) and should not be seen as reflecting on the military as a whole.
It isn’t only the military. The financial crisis, like other financial malfeasance, was often characterized as the product of a few bad apples. You will hear much the same thing after reports about police corruption and other scandals.
There are reasons why the “bad apple” meme is so popular, but none have anything to do with its explanatory power. Saying that something is the result of a few “bad apples” is just another way of saying that it isn’t typical, which we already know. No American thinks that the typical American (or Canadian, Dutch, British, etc.) servicemember goes around killing women and children. Calling the perpetrators of atrocities “bad apples” does nothing to help us understand why a particular “incident” happened, and, more importantly, how future “incidents” can be prevented.
But whatever invoking “bad apples” lacks in explanatory power, it more than makes up for in its exculpatory power. When you say that an “incident” was caused by a “bad apple,” you’re saying “look no further.” No one else is responsible and, more importantly, no one else can be held accountable. The “incident” becomes just another thing to be filed under the heading “Mysterium Iniquitatis.”
This suits us just fine: It’s in keeping with our individualistic way of seeing the world, and it allows us to maintain our belief in, if not our innocence, our essential goodness, which is the sine qua non of American exceptionalism. Most important of all, it spares us of the need to look at the world too closely.
The importance of the latter cannot be overstated. Paying close attention can be, as a presidential candidate might put it, nausea-inducing. For instance, every time I go to my local supermarket, I hear an announcement about a partnership between the store and an area food bank that serves military families. Shoppers are urged to contribute money and/or food items as way of showing our “support” for the troops.
I want to scream, “Does anyone else consider it ridiculous that military families should require the services of a food bank? Don’t you think that, at the very least, ‘supporting the troops’ should include making sure that they don’t?”
For that matter, wouldn’t the best way to “support the troops” be making sure that they are only separated from their families and put in harm’s way when there are vital American interests at stake? Bismarck, who didn’t shy from using force when he thought it served German interests, said that “the whole of the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”
If the Iron Chancellor could distinguish between vital and non-vital interests, why can’t we? Even if we disagree about what constitutes “vital American interests,” shouldn’t we at least talk about it?
Not really. Not when affirmation is only a couple of cans of green beans (store brand, of course) away.
Invoking the “bad apple” non-explanation in this instance also spares us the need to meaningfully acknowledge that war is inherently inhumane -- a reality that all the gauzy talk about “good wars” obscures. Atrocities are an inescapable part of modern -- by which I mean everything since the mid-seventeenth century - warfare. Just ask the people of Drogheda. Or read Stephen Ambrose.
In modern warfare, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants has become increasingly blurred. It’s so blurred that we have an official euphemism for it -- “collateral damage” -- and we plan our wars assuming that non-combatants will be killed as a matter of course.*
Maybe this can’t be helped. In that case, maybe war really should be a “last resort.” That requires paying attention, which, in turn, requires asking questions whose answers we may not like. Better to have a piece of fruit, instead.
Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.
*I hate having to spell this out, so I’ve relegated it to an endnote. “As a matter of course” is not the same thing as “deliberately.”
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