On June 5th, the New York Times was running an article entitled “Taliban Attack Kills 7 Georgian Soldiers in Afghanistan.”
Despite the title, the article said very little about the circumstances surrounding this tragic event; it focused mostly on an analysis of the shortcomings of the Georgian mission in Afghanistan. If I were given a fair chance of responding to this article directly on the pages of the “New York Times”, it would run as follows:
I find the coverage of your paper on the Georgian contribution to military operations in Afghanistan deeply disturbing for reasons of both style and substance (article “Taliban Attack Kills 7 Georgian Soldiers in Afghanistan, 05.08.2013”).
First, in terms of style, I am surprised to note that unlike the coverage of casualties suffered by other nations, including US troops, the victims of the attack are made to suffer a double victimization, being framed as essentially thieving barbarians who have no time for the local population. Allegations of thieving and misconduct are not of course linked directly to the deceased soldiers; this would require actual investigation and reporting. Instead, it is assumed that since they are Georgian, they should have all the alleged negative traits of “a Georgian.” The stain on the name of these “exotic troops,” if unfair, might be considered collateral damage.
There is of course a brief reference to the “utility” of the Georgian troops in keeping the roads open for locals, but little by way of examining the opportunity cost of their absence or the risks that this mundane task involves. Battlefield experience, the living conditions or moral of exotic soldiers, their family and dependents, merit little attention. There seems to be no interest in public opinion at home, that is, Georgia. Throughout the article, there is not a single quote from anyone whose name ends in “idze” or “illi.” The soldiers are nameless, they come from nowhere specifically, suffer no specific dangers, speak “something like Russian,” that is to say they do not even speak English (!), let alone Punjab. In other words, “they had it coming.” In this scheme, it is exotic people killing exotic people under the moral authority of the NYT.
Bottom line: Georgian soldiers are accorded less dignity than mercenaries, although they are men in uniform fighting under “an exotic flag” and, much to the surprise of the NYT’s editorial team, fight battles far away from home. In sum, this is a dehumanizing and infantilizing perspective to say the least, which seems to have a spill-over effect not only on the soldiers as such, but the country of Georgia in general. The fact that Georgia is a very small country, with a GDP that is dwarfed by the annual budget of a single US city and contributes the largest non-NATO force is briefly mentioned, but hardly “evaluated.” Reporters spent little time reflecting on how a nation of this size and means, whose territory is occupied and has thousands of refugees of its own feels when its troops die in a battlefield that is not central to their own national security.
Secondly, in terms of content, the coverage is hardly informative. The only cause for the causalities seems to be “recklessness” and the animosity of the local population. This narrative may treated as the context of every single casualty of a foreign troop in Afghanistan since Alexander the Great; nonetheless, although death makes nice headlines, it is too common to sustain readership, especially if the troops in question are not homegrown. There is not a single comment from the press officer of the Georgian army, a bit of background on the mission or even an examination of the wider context of the campaign, especially in view of the pullout of other forces in the region.
To the reports of this informative article, I would ask the question of whether this kind of coverage would be tolerated had the troops that died in action been of US or NATO origin in general. The answer is obvious, but the question is legitimate.
Because this letter would never be hosted by the NYT, I take this opportunity to offer my deep condolences and appreciation of service to the men lost in action. Our nation has assumed more than its fair share to honor its international commitment to its allies, assuming a burden in excess many NATO member states. We did so with pride. Georgia’s commitment to its allies speaks through concrete casualties rather than abstract principles. For the record, the men who died have names: private first class Zviad Sulkhanishvili, 22; corporal Giorgi Adamov, 23; private first class Giorgi Guchashvili, 21; corporal Boris Tsugoshvili, 29; private first class Zurab Gurgenashvili, 32; Teimuraz Ortavidze, 25; private Mikheil Narindoshvili, 26. The recent attack brought total death toll of the Georgian soldiers in the ISAF mission to 29; at least 120 Georgian soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan.
Alas, as the mission in Afghanistan in apparently coming to an end, we may now reflect on our own schedule of pulling out, leaving to the trained and linguistically competent Afghan forces the mundane task of keeping roads open. We did our part and will be ready to do so again whenever we are needed. When our troops depart, they will be received at home with the honor and recognition of service they deserve.
Foreign Relations Committee
Parliament of Georgia