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Make it stop


[Editor's note: This column contains images and links to images that many readers will find disturbing. Proceed with caution.]

My columns are usually equal parts anger, snark and (I hope) compelling logic. Sometimes there is a bit of humor stirred in. Sometimes, perhaps too often, a bit of showy vocabulary. And in general they are, like me, perhaps a bit more aloof than those of my fellow columnists.


This is not one of those columns. This is a column written through eyes welled with tears, typed with hands shaking with revulsion and shame.

I just found, via the normally smile-inducing Poor Man blog, a site describing a documentary about atrocities committed by Afghan troops under the supervision of U.S. Special Forces after the siege of Kunduz in November of 2001. Here is the summary:

The film provides eyewitness testimony that U.S. troops were complicit in the massacre of thousands of Taliban prisoners during the Afghan War.

It tells the story of thousands of prisoners who surrendered to the US military’s Afghan allies after the siege of Kunduz. According to eyewitnesses, some three thousand of the prisoners were forced into sealed containers and loaded onto trucks for transport to Sheberghan prison. Eyewitnesses say when the prisoners began shouting for air, U.S.-allied Afghan soldiers fired directly into the truck, killing many of them. The rest suffered through an appalling road trip lasting up to four days, so thirsty they clawed at the skin of their fellow prisoners as they licked perspiration and even drank blood from open wounds.

Witnesses say that when the trucks arrived and soldiers opened the containers, most of the people inside were dead. They also say US Special Forces re-directed the containers carrying the living and dead into the desert and stood by as survivors were shot and buried. Now, up to three thousand bodies lie buried in a mass grave.

The stories of torture at Abu Ghraib bothered me deeply, of course. The recently released footage of American troops burning Taliban corpses does, too. But the images this story burns into my head touch a horror that is, for me, deep and personal.

Why does this story resonate so deeply? Part of the answer is that both of my grandfathers were sent to Nazi concentration camps. It happened early, before the primary function of the camps became extermination, and they both got out. Other relatives of mine were not so lucky.

The ways in which the Holocaust permeates the consciousness of the children and even grandchildren of survivors has been well chronicled. I will not bother explaining it here. Suffice it to say that the revulsion – at the Holocaust and at things that remind me of it – is hardwired as surely as if by DNA.

And how does this new outrage echo the Holocaust? American troops reached Dachau the very place my mother’s father was sent – on April 29, 1945. Here is the account of one of those soldiers:

"These people were stuffed in these cars. The cars had bullet holes all over them, evidently from strafing on the way to Dachau. Most of the GIs just stood there in silence and disbelief. We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, 'What took you so long?'"

- Private John Lee, 45th Division soldier who was one of the first men on the scene.

The gruesome pictures taken that day are here. Look at them.

I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington a few years ago. Overall, the museum walked the fine line that separates trivialization from overload (a demarcation that is probably different for every visitor) until I reached the exhibit that contained one of the actual railroad boxcars used to transport untold numbers of victims to their deaths. I could not enter it – I could barely hold myself together just looking at it. I do not believe in an afterlife, but for me that one rail car somehow held the distilled agony of all the exterminated millions.

We say “never again,” and genocide happens in Rwanda. We say “never again,” and it happens in Darfur. We are culpable in our inaction, for the suffering we choose to ignore in those distant places. But those are sins of omission. Now it seems American soldiers – our soldiers – are soaked in the blood of thousands of men in a twisted reenactment of the Dachau death train.

I hope against all hope that the film is wrong – that American troops did not condone and conceal the re-enactment of some of the worst barbarity of the 20th century. But the context of sadistic lawlessness that has been countenanced and even rewarded by the Bush Administration blocks that hope. Today I cannot escape the conclusion that such savagery was done, and in my name.

To be a child of the Holocaust is to identify with the victims of atrocity. In this sense, we should all be children of the Holocaust. The Taliban soldiers massacred at Kunduz may not have been innocents, but their crimes change nothing – they were victims of an atrocity. If Americans commit such acts without consequence, they make Nazis of us all.

I normally write to vent, and in the quixotic, delusional hope I might help change the world. I write to try to maintain my balance on the tightrope that separates hope and despair. Now I am haunted by a nightmare, and write to escape the visions – to make it stop.

Visit John Steinberg @


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