One year ago, Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder video1 created outrage over the actions of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, including the platoon I deployed with. If that grisly video didn’t stop you in your tracks, the photographs and report on the “Kill Team,” released by Rolling Stone should be the wake-up call for truly examining what is being done in our name.2
Before making connections between the two events, it is important to note that I am not making a moral equivalency. Though innocent civilians were killed during the “Collateral Murder” incident, it did occur after a firefight, weapons were found on some of the bodies, and it was not premeditated. In contrast, the “Kill Team’s” murders were preplanned and carried out with no threat, and body parts of the slain were sadistically taken as trophies. That is not a moral excuse for the “Collateral Murder” case, but to evaluate the implications of both events, the context must be presented.
That said, both glimpses of warfare ought to raise serious questions at a fundamental level. Mark Boal’s Rolling Stone piece exposes exactly what was lacking in the “Collateral Murder’s” analysis: the climate in which the behavior occurred. Despite the much more gruesome and visceral level of the “Kill Team” case, however, the same damage control is still being attempted. The protocol response to these scandals is to isolate them as cases of rogue units at complete odds with how the rest of the military performs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Boal penetrates beyond an easy scape-goating of low ranking soldiers by also reporting on the shortcomings of higher ranking officers.
Fox News ran an opinion piece on May 30th from Michael Yon, a reporter who embedded with 5th Stryker Brigade, the unit scrutinized in the Rolling Stone article.3 Yon refutes claims that the attitudes and habits which birthed the sport killings of Afghan civilians were widespread by insisting that he would have known about it, and that he trusted the character of the unit’s leaders.Accusing Rolling Stone of shoddy journalism, he then calls for a boycott. Friendship with subjects is a poor substitute for investigative journalism, though not unprecedented. My unit also had a journalist, David Finkel, and his book about the deployment I was a part of, The Good Soldiers, describes a much more sanitized reality than I experienced.
The military hierarchy creates a convenient defense for those higher up the rungs; as it’s phrased in military lingo, “shit rolls downhill.” If somebody as high up as Donald Rumsfeld is remarking, “it is interesting, in the case of Abu Ghraib, that it was such an important press event and nobody was killed. And in this case, it looks like there are allegations that some people were actually killed,” then Michael Yon is on lonely footing in condemning the story.5
Yon’s other main argument is that a video of soldiers shooting Afghans off of a motorcycle was justified; Boal, however, never said that it wasn’t and clearly stated that the men may have been armed. The video was used to show that videos and pictures of dead Afghans were widespread and led to an overall culture that degraded the worth of the very people to whom these wars are supposed to deliver freedom and security. I encountered this same practice, even beyond my own unit: sitting with a group of soldiers at the Dallas airport on my mid-tour leave in July of 2007, one guy pulled out his laptop and showed photos of dead Iraqis. I tried unsuccessfully to change the subject, and was further bewildered when a civilian approached us, thanked us for our service, and said he was sorry for the things we had to see. Chuckling at bloody corpses encouraged a disregard for human life; or, as one of the “Kill Team” members put it, “none of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people.”
Boal’s piece further describes how locals tried to inform officers of the atrocities being committed, only to be regularly ignored. Yon may be shocked, but I don’t find it hard to believe. Disgusted over what I’d seen in Iraq—most notably a policy that made any civilian fair game after a roadside bomb explosion—I applied for conscientious objector status after return from combat in 2008. On the report I filled out for my application, I listed seeing civilians killed as one of the determinants in my decision. My Commanding Officer said that I could only make this claim if I listed the soldiers who carried out the orders, but would not accept my listing of the officer who gave the command. Determined not play into the military’s tactic of placing misconduct on the lowest possible soldier while ignoring those who pushed for it, I withdrew the statement when my leader refused to file the paperwork with our Battalion Commander listed as the guilty party. The full story later came to light with when other members of my unit verified my statements in a Nation interview.6
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the military’s damage control, often repeated by the media, is the lack on analysis on the local impact. A short apology by generals cannot wipe away the contradiction between a war to end terrorism while rebuilding a nation, and the means with which it is carried out. Malalai Joya, a former member of the Afghan parliament, and who, ironically, was nearly barred from her U.S. speaking tour this month on what “democracy” looks like in her country, stated the blunt reality: “Afghans do not believe this to be a story of a few rogue soldiers. We believe that the brutal actions of these "kill teams" reveal the aggression and racism which is part and parcel of the entire military occupation.”7
While U.S. leaders react to scandal, Joya reveals the overall culture which may not always end in publicized outrage, but makes that line easy to cross. Joking about killing “haji”--the the racist slur for Arabs equivalent to calling Vietnamese people“gooks—begins in basic training. Trophy photos of slain Iraqis or Afghans only add to the callousness. Criticism of abuse is minimized, whether it’s my case or that of a “Kill Team” member whose father, when warned of what was going on, called his son’s unit only to be brushed aside. Drop weapons—arms taken from enemy combatants, used to plant on unarmed who were killed—were kept by my unit, just as they were by the “Kill Team;” we didn’t use them, to my knowledge, but they were the blank check for trigger-happiness. Some may still insist that these realities are exploited by a few bad apples; but it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder when, if it hasn’t already passed, the Afghan support needed to create stability will have been permanently lost because too many bad apples reveal a rotten tree. This isn’t to say that most military members commit the same atrocities as the “Kill Team,” but the overall culture in which they were perpetrated is enough to put the war’s ends at odd with it its means.
The difference between Joya’s description of the bigger picture, and Yon’s damage control is a microcosm of the vicious cycle that further propels this war. U.S. officials insist that a few more years, an increase of troops, or extra money will lead to victory. In the meantime, when civilians are accidentally killed or the military outrages locals in some other way, quick apologies are uttered with no structural changes, or excuses are given that soldiers are weary or that the Taliban is worse. Then, when incidents like the “Kill Team” happen, they’re dismissed as extreme outliers. But with this track record, more of the same is ominous news for Afghans; in the words of Malalai Joya, “Once you know all this, and once you have seen the "kill team" photos, you will understand more clearly why Afghans have turned against this occupation.”