Rogue Soldiers. Members of U.S. Platoon Are Accused of Killing Afghan Civilians for Sport.” When I read this headline in The Washington Post, my mind raced back to Fort Bliss, Tex., in June 1955.
“Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning,” our instructor said. “You are all professional killers. Make no mistake about that.”
It was the basic course for officers, and hundreds of R.O.T.C. graduates—including some from Fordham University and Boston College—were packed into an auditorium. We saw ourselves as future doctors, lawyers and businessmen, fulfilling our obligation of two years on active duty, destined to be ordered to West Germany or Thule, Greenland. I doubt any of us saw himself as a killer.
My father won the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I. He wiped out a German machine gun nest all by himself, so he must have killed Germans in the process. As an anti-aircraft artillery officer assigned to Germany, I was ready to shoot down Russian planes. But I decided that if ordered to shell a house full of civilians, I would refuse and face the court martial.
Yet there was a terrible truth in our instructor’s “killer” pep talk. War means that we must kill more of them than they kill of us. So we should not be surprised when the beast inside the young soldier takes over. Training and experience in battle have given soldiers a license to kill, and both propaganda and bombing strategies have made clear that these deaths are not just necessary but good.
Speaking on CBS on March 29, 1971, Eric Sevareid, the network’s most highly respected commentator, talked about Lt. William Calley, who had slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children at My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968: “It was World War II which institutionalized and rationalized mass murder of the innocent. The aerial bomb returned warfare to the frightfulness of antiquity—whole cities put to the flame and sword. And coarsened the conscience of man.” In World War II we destroyed whole villages from a sanitizing distance. “Calley was the end product of the process. He did it point blank, looking his victims in their pleading eyes,” Mr. Sevareid said.
During nine years in Afghanistan, the Army has court-martialed 34 service members for civilian murder and convicted 22 of them. Convictions are difficult because of the “fog of war” defense: they killed in confusion.
In the months ahead the media will focus on the trial of Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs and four other enlisted men of the Fifth Stryker Combat Brigade, now home from Afghanistan, for the murder of at least three Afghan civilians—allegedly for fun. Reportedly, members of a troubled platoon with a year of fighting and casualties behind them and a reputation for using alcohol and hashish, led by Gibbs, formed a “kill team.” Gibbs said it had been easy to do “stuff” in Iraq, so let’s do it here.
Between January and March the five soldiers killed at least three innocent men. The method: pick a target, toss a grenade. When it explodes, open fire on the Afghan man; later say he had the grenade.
Shocked, one team member, Spec. Adam C. Winfield, sent e-mail to his father pleading with him to do something before they killed again. “It was an innocent guy about my age, just farming,” he wrote. “They mowed him down.” The father called the Army inspector general; the office of Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida; and the Army’s criminal investigations division. No response. The soldiers killed two more.
The army took no action until another soldier complained to the military police about drug use. According to court documents, platoon members retaliated by beating him savagely. Rather than quit, that soldier went back to the police and told them about the shootings.
As these troops beat the informant, Sergeant Gibbs menacingly waved the finger bones he had collected from the dead. Another team member had kept an enemy skull. Today prosecutors have over 60 gruesome photographs of corpses, including troops displaying the severed heads of their victims. Gibbs, described by his fellow soldiers as “savage,” keeps count of his kills with skull tattoos on his lower leg.
In Tim O’Brien’s short story about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” one soldier cuts off the thumb of a dead Viet Cong youth as a souvenir. That severed digit symbolizes what the license to kill can do to the moral sensibilities of young men we know and love in the classroom, playing fields and in our homes. Michael Corson, a Vietnam veteran who now teaches international relations at Boston University, told the Associated Press that it is no surprise soldiers keep hideous photos as souvenirs. It proves they are tough. “War is the one lyric experience of their lives.”
My reaction to that lecture in Fort Bliss was, two years later, to join the Jesuit priesthood. My reluctance to kill was never tested. Today my main fear is that the words Specialist Winfield wrote to his father may become true for more of the young: “There’s no one in this platoon that agrees this was wrong. They all don’t care.”