What Led American Soldiers To Mutilate Afghan Civilians?

As the trial begins for the “kill team” — U.S. Army soldiers who allegedly deliberately murdered and mutilated Afghan civilians — Americans should consider what exactly is being done in our name overseas, and what can be done to prevent future abuses.

Five soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade are charged with killing three Afghan civilians for sport and then making them appear to be enemy combatants in 2010. The alleged torture, murder, and mutilation were outlined in a Rolling Stone article by Mark Boal in March, accompanied by graphic photos. The military is holding a court-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who is accused of planning and encouraging the crimes.

Gibbs’ attorney admitted his client cut off the fingers of Afghan civilians’ corpses and used them as trophies; however, he maintains that Gibbs, who faces life in prison, was not involved in the actual killing. This contradicts the testimony of three soldiers who have pleaded guilty to other charges: They argue that the entire plan was Gibbs’ idea, and that he encouraged them to stage the deaths and make the civilians appear to be combatants, while violently suppressing other soldiers’ efforts to report the abuse.

Even if Gibbs is not guilty of murder, the fact that he mutilated the corpses of civilians is disturbing to say the least. Other soldiers have testified that Gibbs hated Afghans and referred to them as “savages.” Such a gruesome act does not seem as inhumane when the perpetrator fails to recognize the victims’ humanity.

Civilian casualties are a tragic occurrence in wars; but the deliberate murder of civilians, combined with torturing and mutilating them for fun, is inexcusable by all accounts.

Although the military is ostensibly seeking justice through Gibbs’ court-martial, there seems to be lack of commitment to looking further into the case and critically examining the conditions that led to the actions of the kill team — as well as investigating how far up the chain of command responsibility goes.

Killing and mutilating civilians is by no means common practice in the U.S. military, but many soldiers grapple with the same conditions that caused the men from the 5th Stryker Brigade to snap. To deem the kill team’s behavior the isolated actions of a few bad soldiers is to almost guarantee future tragedies. John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies writes of the kill team’s alleged treatment of Afghans:

It was a troubling episode, hardly typical of the conduct of American military men and women in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, atrocities large and small recur with disturbing frequency.

The habitual response of the military is to describe such rampages as an “aberration” — bad actors among generally well-behaved soldiers.

An alternative account is that atrocities result from structural reasons: poor training, aggressive commanders, a permissive military.

And there are the conditions of war itself.

The fog of war now involves a blurry distinction between enemy fighters and civilians, and daily operations — house-to-house searches, roadblocks and vulnerable convoys, among others — in which soldiers anxiously encounter civilians.

Which explanation accounts for the “kill team” and the many other incidents of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is likely to involve all three.

Recognizing the kill team episode as part of a larger set of conditions and practices is imperative to prevent future abuses. Studies have shown that the military often does not emphasize the need to treat civilians with dignity and respect. Additionally, the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — in which a seemingly harmless civilian could be hiding a bomb or worse — complicates the standard rules of war.

The kill team reports highlight the need for greater monitoring and treatment of soldiers’ mental health. Gibbs allegedly committed these acts during his third tour; hence, even if he has always been a disturbed individual, his mental health was undoubtedly affected by years of brutal combat. The Army has been hiring more counselors to meet a growing challenge, but the mental health damage resulting from war is difficult to undo.

The horrific actions of the kill team emphasize the need to fully weigh the effects of war and to make a determined effort to prevent future abuses — for the sake of civilians and soldiers alike.


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