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The Essential Evil of War

Every evening, at the end of the PBS News Hour, one of the most respected news programs in the U.S., one can see the images of the U.S. soldiers killed the previous day. They usually are young men, generally between 20 and 25 years of age. Even the most hardened person cannot but feel a pang of anguish looking at these young people whose lives were cut short by an irrational war. And one can imagine how many vibrant lives were lost and will be lost until the war in Afghanistan ends.

Awful as these losses are, another reality should be considered –the photos of these same soldiers degrading Afghan prisoners. Through these photos we can see that these soldiers’ lives have been compromised by war but, equally terrifying, that war has changed them, has made them lose that essential humanity that makes us respect other people at their most basic level. And thus we suddenly have a vision of the essential evilness of war.

These thoughts are brought to mind after looking at three photographs recently released by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, part of 4,000 photos and videos taken by the soldiers. The photos are among a number seized by U.S. Army investigators investigating the deaths of three unarmed Afghan civilians during 2010.

Twelve soldiers from the Bravo company unit of the Fifth Stryker Combat Brigade in Kandahar province are accused of serious crimes against Afghan civilians. Those accused include Special Sergeant Jeremy Morlock, 22, and three other men who were allegedly following orders from Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25.  These soldiers are accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport and collecting their body parts –including a human skull- as trophies.

The first photograph shows Morlock holding the naked corpse of an Afghan civilian named Gul Mudin by his hair and grinning proudly at the camera. The second photograph shows another soldier, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, posing with the same man, whom he is holding by his hair with one hand while holding a cigarette with his other hand. The third photograph shows two Afghan civilians murdered by these soldiers. The victims’ dirty clothing suggests that they were dragged by a vehicle and possibly tortured before being killed.

As reported by Afghans for Peace (AFP) an investigation shows that the military ignored the warnings of a soldier, Spc. Adam Winfield, whose father persistently tried to inform the military commanders of the atrocities only to be turned away. “They planned everything out. I knew about it…I want to do something about it, but I don’t have the courage…” wrote Adam Winfield.

Although many critics have compared these events to those that happened at Abu Ghraib, AFP states that while those incidents occurred with prisoners, the events now described, including murder, occurred publicly in broad daylight.

In another incident described by Der Spiegel, the team apprehended a mullah who was standing by the road, was asked to kneel down in a ditch and a grenade was thrown at him while an order was given for him to be shot.

The army apologized for the distress caused by the photographs which, according to a statement, “depict actions repugnant to us as human beings and are contrary to the standards and values of the United States.”

No amount of apologies, however, can bring back to life these Afghan civilians who were killed. No amount of apologies can give back to these soldiers the humanity they lost in this terrible war. No amount of apologies can eliminate the essential evilness of war.

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César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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