The trial of the leader of the “kill team” — a group of U.S. soldiers that murdered Afghan civilians for sport and mutilated their corpses — has ended, and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs has been found guilty of murder, assault, and conspiracy in the killings of three Afghan civilians in separate incidents. But Gibbs was given the chance for parole within 10 years, leading many to question whether justice was actually served.
Gibbs was convicted of murder for inciting two soldiers to kill 15-year-old Gul Mudin as he worked in a field. The platoon commander gave a grenade to one of the soldiers, Jeremy Morlock, who threw it at Mudin. A second soldier, Andrew Holmes, then shot the boy. Gibbs played with the corpse of the teenager “as if it was a puppet,” Morlock told the trial.
The staff sergeant was also convicted of shooting dead Marach Agha, a man sleeping by a roadside, and then planting a Kalashnikov next to the corpse to make it look as if he was a fighter. He kept part of the victim’s skull as a trophy.
Gibbs was convicted on a third count of murder for killing a Muslim cleric, Mullah Adahdad, with a grenade and then shooting him.
The nature of the Afghan War makes it understandably complicated to determine who is an innocent civilian and who is an insurgent; nonetheless, the testimonies clearly showed that these victims did not provoke the soldiers and that the attacks were carried out “for sport.” When another soldier threatened to report the crimes, Gibbs and others in the unit allegedly beat him.
The chilling accounts of the crimes were followed by a life sentence — but with the possibility of parole after only less than 10 years. The five military jurors granted Gibbs’ wish to potentially be reunited with his son someday. This, despite several testimonies asserting the extent to which Gibbs is psychologically disturbed.
“He likes to kill things,” said Adam Winfield, another soldier who had already pleaded guilty to his role in the killings. “He is pretty much evil incarnate.”
Under most circumstances, “evil incarnate” would be pretty damning testimony, particularly in a trial that included Gibbs admitting glibly that he took victims’ body parts — fingers, teeth, bits of skull — as trophies. People have been given the death penalty for far less.
If the heinous crimes had been committed against U.S. citizens, no doubt the sentence would be much harsher. Instead, the victims were Afghans. Gibbs was known to refer to Afghan civilians as “savages,” and during the trial he compared taking parts of their corpses to collecting the antlers from a slain deer.
The conviction, however, suggests that the tendency to view Afghans as subhuman is not unique to twisted individuals like Gibbs; it is a common American opinion. The fact that jurors granted the possibility of parole after less than a decade despite multiple murders is a massive insult to the victims’ families and all other Afghans. The weak sentence will certainly not help in trying to improve Afghans’ view of the Americans who have occupied their country for more than a decade.
Gibbs’ trial is a stark reminder of the ability of war to trigger horrific behavior — and of the disrespect Americans have toward civilians living in war zones.
So while Gibbs might be granted parole in less than 10 years and get to see his son, the father of the Afghan boy he helped kill and mutilate will never have such an opportunity.