By Michael Nickerson
The story you are about to read is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We don’t want to get too philosophical here, but truth is a slippery thing. Some say it’s a matter of perspective, some a matter of how loudly you speak it in public. Most generally assume it involves things like facts. But for today’s lesson, we’re simply going to assume that it involves honesty. All the characters in this story are real, and all will be assumed to be telling the truth, or how they see it anyway. As I say, it’s a slippery thing, at least until you end up with a libel suit.
So why the preamble? Well, because this story involves a whole lot of truths that just don’t quite sit well with each other. Picture a family gathering where only half the guests have access to the liquor cabinet and you might get the idea. You just aren’t going to get the same story from everybody, no matter how honest they all are. Some were just seeing things a little differently.
And this brings us to bacha bazi, or the Afghan tradition of “boy play.” Namely, boys dressing as women to dance and perform in front of adult men, more often than not as a prelude to being sodomized by the aforementioned male spectators, depending who you ask. Some will say its innocuous entertainment, some a cultural custom of tolerated abuse, and some nothing more or less than a criminal act to be dealt with accordingly.
Sharp-eyed readers will remember back to 2008, when the Toronto Star reported the story of Cpl. Travis Schouten, who told of seeing the aftermath of a boy sexually assaulted by Afghan security personnel (a year later he would tell of witnessing the actual act to David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen). It was part of a long and harrowing story of what Schouten faced in the field and the mental anguish thereafter, an exposé on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it was his accounts of seeing a boy with his rectum hanging out that seemed to catch the eyes of Canadians, and senior brass not long after. A board of inquiry was launched in November of that year to get to the bottom of things. First they heard of it, let’s take a look.
And look they did. One hundred and five witnesses and 107 pages later, the conclusion is in: Something pretty bad happened, no one was ordered to ignore it, but poor communication led to nobody doing anything about it. Problem solved. And speaking of poor communication, it should be said that the final report has been working its way up, or around, the chain of command since it was completed in 2010. Canadians just got to hear about it in April 2016. Yep, nothing but the truth.
So let’s assume that Cpl. Schouten was telling the truth; that those on the board of inquiry faithfully reported the truth; that all the witnesses told the truth; that the media reports of defence department documents pointing to full knowledge of what was going on as far back as 2007 was the truth; that the eyewitness reports by military chaplains of counselling multiple soldiers who had witnessed abuse was the truth; that unnamed accounts by soldiers of not-so-much being ordered but merely told to look the other way was the truth; and current reports by U.S. Marines of continued instances of “boy play” while soldiers feel helpless to intervene, are indeed, the truth.
Is there something afoot that no one has the leadership to confront? Is it cultural relativism run amok? Or is it just good common sense that one should mind their his or her own business?
If you’re General Jonathan Vance, there really isn’t any question at all. When asked during a recent Q&A with the
Star about the sort of conflict a soldier might face in the field, at least in Afghanistan, his answer was that there isn’t one. He spent lots of time there, never met an Afghan commander who would condone such a thing, and regardless, Afghan culture “celebrates their children” so what bad could happen? Isolated criminal acts are all they are, nothing more.
So there you have it: a senior general who never knew a commander that would condone pedophilic buggery, a frontline soldier who witnessed otherwise, a board of inquiry that will not assign any blame, a media machine all too ready to assign just that. All true, or so we assume.
Which truth can you handle?