February 26th, 2012
08:48 AM ET

Stanger: The U.S. should never be burning books

Editor's Note: Allison Stanger is Russell Leng ’60 Professor of International Politics and Economics and Chair of the Political Science Department at Middlebury College Middlebury College. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.

By Allison Stanger – Special to CNN

President Obama’s apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the U.S. military burning Qurans at Bagram Air Field, the largest NATO base in Afghanistan, has prompted a fierce reaction. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called the apology “an outrage.”

Our Commander in Chief was courageous to apologize in an election year for an outrageous violation of American values that happened on his watch. But the debate that focuses only on whether it is right or wrong to burn Qurans or whether the Afghan people are justified in responding with rioting misses the larger question: What were American forces doing burning books of any kind in Afghanistan, let alone Islam’s most sacred text?

Book burning is not something typically associated with freedom-of-speech-loving America. When books are burned in a country desperately in need of more books, where only 43% of men and 12% of women are literate, it should prompt questions.

NATO officials and President Obama the act unintentional. U.S. service members were following orders to burn the Qurans and other reading materials that may or may not have been used by Afghan inmates to pass encoded messages between themselves at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins the base. The incinerated materials were taken from a library at Parwan Detention Facility. The burning took place in view of local Afghan staff who felt compelled to get word of the action out to the population at large.

I want to believe that the burning of Qurans was an unintended mistake. But surely any soldier based in Afghanistan after a decade-long American intervention knows that the desecration of the Koran is an inflammatory and offensive act in aMuslim country.

But torching the Qurans in front of Afghans for whom it is a sacred text could just as easily be construed as an expression of growing frustration with the accelerating deterioration of the U.S. position in Afghanistan and an accompanying loss of faith in the applicability of Western Enlightenment values in the Afghan context.

It is an act that could just as well be classified in the same category as the four Marines who were videotaped urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The battle for hearts and minds is clearly in a downward spiral when American men and women in uniform are the perpetrators of such atrocities.

President Obama’s apology has done little to contain the mounting rage in Afghanistan that led to a march on the presidential palace after Friday prayers, the Saturday killings of two U.S. officers on the job in Afghan ministries and the subsequent withdrawal of NATO advisors from Afghanistan. But this latest incident provides further evidence that our armed forces have begun to lose touch with why we are fighting in the first place.

Their frustration is understandable, but we should never implicitly condone American soldiers burning books as a means to defending freedom by attacking those who apologize. The cost of losing what we are fighting to uphold is far too high. Thankfully, President Obama understands that.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Allison Stanger.

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Topics: Afghanistan

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