There’s an elephant in the room around bases these days, and its name is war crime. Soldiers and Afghans alike seem reluctant to discuss the situation, lest doing so expose their own confused feelings which (I intuit) include some mix of embarrassment, rage, and commiseration. Obviously, some of these belong more to one subset of base society than the other. For their part, most of my Afghan co-workers (Kabulis with long experience with the US military; sentiments are likely very different elsewhere in the country) dismiss the so-called kill unit as a rogue incident with both deep pain and seemingly unquenchable hope. Their faith in the US armed forces, however shaken through various revelations of civilian killings, has not yet failed, if only to preserve their own sanity.
The soldiers, meanwhile, present a slightly more complex psychology. For the most part, they are curtly dismissive of the topic. The most common response is one of brusque anger that some assholes in the south have made all of them look bad while increasing the danger and difficulty of their jobs. Interestingly, however, they also express a limited and tense sort of camaraderie. They are, of course, protective of Army, generally distrustful of media ‘spins’ which tarnish the service (regardless of validity), and sympathetic to the frustrations that supposedly fueled the murders. Even in the relatively tranquility of Kabul, most of the troops I know are afflicted to various degrees by low morale, impatience with the rules of engagement, disdain for the command structure, and aggravation with a faceless, seemingly untouchable enemy.
After the recent suicide attack on Camp Phoenix, one member of the QRF groused that he wasn’t good at this sort of thing; all he wanted to do was pursue the ancillary shooters who escaped and kill anyone who got in his way. ‘It’s what I was trained to do’ - he shrugged – ‘destroy things.’ Another expressed regret that he couldn’t collect a trophy from among the remains of the bombers. ‘But not like those sick fucks down south’ - he elaborated – ‘I just wanted to take a photo of the guy’s eyeball on the ground and post it on facebook with the caption “seeing eye to eye with the Taliban.” But I would get in serious trouble.’ It is these qualities, taken to the extreme and likely heightened by rampant drug use and the absence of competent supervision, which led to a moral vacuum and enabled the sickening spate of xenophobic ‘haji-hunting’ two years ago.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. For those not aquainted with Rolling Stone, Der Spiegel or really any other major news outlet, a dozen American soldiers are on trial for their role in the pre-mediated murder of at least four Afghan civilians in 2009. The tale is a sordid one, involving calculated brutality, mutilation of corpses, slopping staging to fabricate justification, extensive drug use, and the willful ignorance of the command structure.
Of course, that the report was met with such shock on the home front is almost comical. The Kandahar spree was appalling in its duration, certainly, and the emboldening jubilation that followed each murder. What it was not, however, was isolated. Nor was it the worst war crime committed by US troops in recent history in terms of scale or intensity. There was Haditha massacre in 2005, during which 24 Iraqis, including children, were slaughtered by United States Marines in Al Anbar Province. The carnage was generally billed as a revenge killing, though most of those murdered were not involved in the IED attack on the Marines that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. There was also the platoon from the 101st Airborne Division, four members of whom gang raped a 14-year-old girl, then killed her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister during its 2005-06 deployment to South Baghdad. The back story of the 101st was similar to that of the Kandahar unit, in that the platoon experienced horrific losses, near daily combat, a breakdown in leadership, and substance abuse.
But why should the fun stop with the wars of my generation? Going back farther, Vietnam boasted the My Lai Massacre – between three and five hundred unarmed South Vietnamese villagers were raped, tortured, and murdered by members of the US Army in 1968. Some of their corpses were subsequently mutilated. At least the Army has a sense of tradition in its war crimes…
I in no way mean to imply that US service members are unique in their contravention of humanitarian law and human decency. On the flip side in Vietnam, the Viet Cong deliberately butchered an entire town of approximately twenty-eight hundred South Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive, shooting some, beating others, and burying the rest alive. More recently, the ICTY convicted several Bosnians from varying ethnicities of panoply of war crimes, including forcing a POW to bite off another’s testicle and having a subordinate torture a woman by orally, vaginally, and anally raping her during an interrogation. Meanwhile, two years ago, fighters from Uganda's LRA announced their resurgence in grand style; they hacked or bludgeoned over 300 Congolese to death, marking one of the single worst atrocities of their two decades-long insurgency.
Jonathan Swift declared war that ‘made game the world so loves to play,’ and it comes replete with a cavalcade of misery diverse enough to suit any sadistic preference: long sleeve/short sleeve in Sierra Leone; systemic rape and mutilation in DRC; extra-judicial killings and disappearances in Latin American dirty wars; the numbingly efficient brutality of the Holocaust; hell, we could even wander as far back through history as the rampages of Genghis Khan and gendercide of Melos during Peloponnesian War. The deaths and the suffering being to lose context after a while; the abstraction of what pure evil we people are able to inflict on someone we can label an enemy.
That the Kandahar case does not reach these heights of savagery does not, of course, excuse it in any way. Willful killing of civilians is explicitly illegal under US domestic (US Code 2441) and international law, constituting a grave violation of Fourth Geneva Convention. The relevant passage declares that:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.
Unfortunately, the beautiful fiction of Geneva Conventions has little bearing on life here. The slow, grinding realities of a COIN campaign, less traditional combat than a more amorphous mission, mean that even with no distinct enemy, ones friends can still loose friends and limbs. It seems to me inevitable that mounting tensions would eventually unleash the darkest hatreds of the human soul. Put slightly less melodramatically, the Kandahar kill unit was frankly an eventual consequence of giving predominately un-educated young men with too much testosterone, raging cases of PTSD, and not enough supervision guns and sending them out to kill 'terrorists'. Lacking another convincing narrative of whom to blame for the hell they’re living in, they are free to create their own enemies, looking first to the ‘lazy’ Afghans who ‘refuse to stand up for themselves’. The sense of otherness codifies eventually into hatred until the sense of mission is not only obscured, but abandoned altogether. It of course does not help that the mission is so nebulous in the first place.
We live in a video game vacuum, in which the decisions made today have no consequences either next month or next year, and certainly never at home. Among the perpetrators in Kandahar, there did not appear to be any understanding of how killing a haji in the hinterlands of Afghanistan might mean their comrades at arms would face a greater threat two years hence, even less that it might cause them to spend the rest of their life behind bars in the States.
I was actually rather heartened that there are prosecutions occurring at all, though of course the command should bear much more substantive responsibility for the actions of the unit. Complicity in a war crime is still a war crime. It was the eminently quotable General Patton who observed that wars are won by men. ‘It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory’. Unfortunately, the same is true in, well, not so much defeat at deliberate sabotage of the mission.
Two things did strike me with this story, beyond the senseless cruelty of the spree. First, I was and remain astounded that it took some callously gruesome photos in Rolling Stone to make the broader public pay attention. These crimes were committed two years ago. Why did it take so long for this to get picked up? Moreover, as heinous as these crimes were, some people are just content to shake their head, chalking the whole matter up to boys being boys. I very nearly had a heated argument with a coworker who was incensed by the severity of Specialist Morlock’s sentence. Twenty-four years for the premeditated murder of four people? He should have been eligible for life without parole or even the death penalty.
Second, I can’t help but feel that the military has created a culture among its troops that encourages the exploitation of the complex realities of counter-insurgency by lauding sociopathic and reckless behavior. Without a context of reality and or expectation of repercussion, the mindset here in one in which violence is casual and even slightest pretense of provocation offers the illusion of reasonability. The base atmosphere – even at Phoenix, safe, sedate Phoenix – is less Patton, more Napoleon: A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon. And the lengths they will do to get it now include fabricating an ambush for a CIB. Iraq bred cowboys and Afghanistan gives them boredom and ghosts. Far from gaining a deeper appreciation for life through being forced to take it, soldiers here appear to codified violence as an acceptable response to even the slightest threat to one’s person. Proportionate use of force is not the by-word.