The making of a war crime

March 28, 2011

Rory Fanning reports on the latest revelations of war crimes carried out by U.S. troops in Afghanistan--and why those at the top are escaping prosecution.

PHOTOS OF soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Army infantry division, posing with the dead and mutilated bodies of three Afghan civilians have shocked the world.

Released in the March 21 issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel, only three of the photos have so far been made public, despite the magazine's claim to have more than 4,000 images and videos taken by the "kill team," as the group called itself, in its possession.

In the pictures, soldiers pose gleefully with dead Afghan civilians who have been stripped naked and bound by the wrists, and who display signs of torture.

But while the U.S. military is attempting to claim the atrocities were carried out by a few "bad apples," the responsibility for these crimes rests not only with the soldiers themselves, but with the architects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--all the way up to the president.

The U.S. military has reportedly had the images in question since May 2010. Officials at the Lewis McChord Criminal Investigation Division reportedly attempted to keep the photos under a tight lid, and Der Speigel has not said how it obtained the images.

A U.S. soldier posing with an Afghan civilian murdered by members of his unit
A U.S. soldier posing with an Afghan civilian murdered by members of his unit

Twelve soldiers from the "kill team" platoon were charged in connection with the murder of the unarmed civilians, and five face murder charges. All together, the soldiers were charged with 76 crimes.

Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock pled guilty to the three murders on March 23 in a military court outside of Tacoma, Wash. According to National Public Radio, "Morlock testified that he along with his fellow soldiers killed three Afghan men on three separate occasions in the Kandahar province. He said they planted weapons on or next to the victims' corpses to make it look like the killings were legitimate."

In one incident, the soldiers hid behind a wall and threw a grenade at a passerby. They shot the corpse with a rifle and planted a Russian grenade next to the body to make it look as if the dead man had initiated the attack. The "kill team" nicknamed the murder operation--which they are said to have planned for weeks --"Pineapple," after the shape of the Russian grenade.

Morlock received a 24-year sentence, negotiated down from life, in exchange for testimony against four other soldiers facing murder charges. He will be eligible for parole in seven years.

In one photo, time stamped January 15, 2010, Morlock grins as he pulls on the hair of Gul Mudin, the son of an Afghan farmer, bringing the man's lifeless face into frame. Morlock displays Mudin as if he were an animal killed on a safari.

The accused ringleader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, said in a sworn statement that he cut off the fingers and removed teeth from one victim to keep as "mementos." "The plan was to kill people." Gibbs said in a hearing.

Only after Der Spiegel released the photographs, did the Army feel compelled to issue a statement that some in the media are calling an apology. "These [pictures] are repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States," said U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Collins.

THE U.S. Army is treating the "kill team" murders as isolated incidents inconsistent with the "values" of the military.

But it should be pointed out that the members of the "Kill Brigade" had undergone psychological tests, were trusted with weapons and were given hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of military training before they committed these crimes (in fact, nicknames such as the "Kill Brigade" are not uncommon amongst platoons in the military).

There was nothing "insane" about the12 soldiers from the Kill Brigade before they went to Afghanistan. Instead, it is the logic of the "war on terror" itself--a logic which drives soldiers to see any and all civilians as potential counter-insurgents and justifies occupations on a racist basis--that inevitably leads to such atrocities.

The history of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that these incidents are not isolated. Dozens of prisoners were tortured and at least two were murdered at Bagrham Air Base, located 50 miles outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, between 2002-2008.

In 2004, 11 Army soldiers were charged with the torture of prisoners inside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. That same year, a Marine was charged with the murder of an unarmed prisoner in Falluja.

In 2006, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family were murdered by a group of U.S. soldiers in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. In March of 2007, U.S. Marines shot and killed as many as 19 unarmed civilians as they fled the scene of a reported bomb attack in Haditha, Iraq.

Later that year, in September 2007, military contractors with Blackwater shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square. Last January, Raymond Allen Davis, a CIA operative killed two "robbers"--a third was killed crossing the street as other CIA employees rushed to extract Davis from the scene--in Pakistan.

This is all in addition to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been massacred as a result of bombing raids, drone attacks and mortar assaults on villages and towns in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Iraq. Estimates suggest that as many as 32,000 have been killed in Pakistan alone as a result of drone attacks.

COMPOUNDING THESE war crimes is the fact that the U.S. military has failed to aggressively investigate and prosecute such incidents. According to documents uncovered by the muckraking Web site WikiLeaks, the U.S. has been criminally negligent in its investigation of war crimes. Additionally, high-ranking officials, who set out the policies that led to such atrocities, have never been brought to justice.

As the Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung noted:

The [WikiLeaks] documents provide evidence of numerous war crimes and other severe U.S. breaches of the Geneva Convention ratified by Washington...The U.S. justice system has only opened investigations in fewer than 5 percent of all these cases. Only a handful of lower-ranking people were convicted and in most cases received short prison sentences. The military commanders and the people politically responsible for the crimes right up to President Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney were not called to task.

In other countries--such as Sudan for example--such a blatant failure of the national justice system would have led to the involvement of the International Criminal Court, which the U.S. has refused to join.

To date, the highest-ranking solder on trial for crimes committed by the "Kill Brigade" is a staff sergeant.

Meanwhile, we can only surmise the number of unreported incidents perpetrated against civilians given the lengths the U.S. has gone to suppress the criminal acts of its soldiers in the past. This includes not only civilian deaths, but also the killing of U.S. soldiers like former NFL player Pat Tillman--whose death in 2004 in Afghanistan as a result of friendly fire was covered up by military officials in order to avoid a scandal.

The military and government officials will attempt to go to any lengths to hide the truth about the brutality of their wars.

Today, after 10 years of an aimless and unending U.S. military crusade against the people of the Middle East, timid "apologies" for such atrocities issued by the military and administration officials carry no weight. Those at the top should be held responsible for these war crimes.

Further Reading

From the archives