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November 08, 2010

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.”

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13 years 4 months ago
For an extraordinarily powerful essay, also along the lines of "War is hell", see the June/July issue of First Things. The title is "In the Name of the Sons" and looks at several fathers who lost their sons in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Keyran Moran
13 years 4 months ago
Schroth is a great addition to the staff. He tells it as it is. This violence is sheer barbarianism- that gives these psychopaths a sense of "lyricism" to their impulses.

I think one reason for this maniacal pleasure in easy slaughter is the very low quality of the troops that the army and the marines are now accepting. But it is not the only explanation. In Germany there was an hour's documentary about returning veterans who seemed to be Xavier or Regis types. They were all suffering from PTSD. One of the five drowned his girl friend. He seemed to be a nice guy-but his nightmares were driving him crazy.

In Richard Rhodes' WHY THEY KILL, he mentions that many a soldier in Vietnam either froze or refused to fire. Presumably the new guys.

But don't forget the much more prevalent Sanctified Violence-where the IDF soldiers were ordered to shoot to kill anything that moved-in order to let the Gazans know that Israelis were and would be merciless. The kill ratio was 140 to 1, Among the killed were 410 children under 18-including five daughters of a Palestinian doctor.

And don't forget the sanctification of the mass murder in the senate and the house-which blessed the racist massacre by 10 to 1.

The other night there was in Germany a 90 minute documentary about Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg and Schroth are rare today. At Ellsberg's trial, his lawyer said,  more or less: We must try to avoid having in the jury successful middle-aged men. "It is inconceivable to them that a DE would give up his Rand Corp job and his family and go to jail for a "principle."

In Shroth's and my time in a Jesuit high school, I firmly believe that there were far more Ellsbergs in our classes than calculating "organization" guys.

I think our client-state's slaveholding and utterly pitiless brutality has been teaching all of America what is in the heart of darkness. Brando describes it in the movie Apocalyse Now. Listen closely to the Colonel Kurtz' words:

 his steaming admiration for the chopping off the little arms of little children. The Colonel considered this insanity to be the height of manly devotion-because the choppers would do anything to defeat the enemy!
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 4 months ago
War can also mean a great deal more than the terrible violence the author recounts here, worse even than Detroit on a bad Saturday night.  War can also mean saving an ancient tribe from being totally annihilated along with all homosexuals, priests, and mental defectives. It can mean ending a system of government that shoots down those citizens fleeing over a wall intended to keep them captive and enslaved. It can mean providing citizens of a country butchered by their Butcher an opportunity, not a guarantee, of a democratic society and at least a great reduction in the likelihood that their village will be sarin gassed by their own despotic leader. It can mean that perhaps, just perhaps, they can look forward to a time when 50,000 or so of their fellow citizens will not be killed, tortured, or raped by a butcher and his barbaric sons annually.
War can mean to accept a great evil, or participating in a lesser evil in reasonable hope of a significant reduction of evil as the result. These are not good choices, but they are real ones.
Keyran Moran
13 years 4 months ago
Be careful, Herr Mattingly. Be very careful.

Be assured that the War Party can find a long list of reasons for going to war, a war like the one in Vietnam-where we free citizens of a free land slaughtered a 1,000..000 or more Vietnamese and pushed almost 60,000 of our own to a empty dying and an empty death.

Be assured that present reigning War Party has no opposition and there are no checks&balances to the Lobby or to Israel to prevent them from a Permanent War.

And note how easy it is to implant fear and a never-ending anxiety into all Americans, Brits,  Germans and others....that the Evil Moslems are planning to attack our planes, our trains, and indeed the rooms our children sleep in.

All of this alarm darkens with evil the Moslems and Arabs-which allowed  Israel to slaughter 410 children and to award themselves a kill-ratio of 140-1 and then order the American congress to approve of the slaughter by a 10-1 ratio.

I think, Herr Mattingly, that we are all in a Permanent War and I think that we and our grandchildren, God forbid, will be in the same Holy War. If you see even a sliver of opposition in the USA, please enlighten us.

The only question is: not when but where the next massacre will take place with American money, American political support, American weapons and maybe even American hurrahs.
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 4 months ago
Dear Don,
We needn't address each other as Herr, fortunately.  Recall that the country ignored your line of thinking and followed Churchill, not your hero Chamberlain. Had we not, we might indeed be under the thumb of the National Socialists or some other Communist socialist thug and be required to use those titles or similar ones in hommage to our conquerors. But fortunately, we located enough good men who were not willing to do nothing, and so we remain free.
Not so fortunate the Hutus and Tutsis. There we remained aloof and did not intervene militarily in their plight. The hundred thousand plus who were macheted/burned/raped/lynched are the direct result of us successfully dodging intervention and being called militaristic. Wonder how those thousands slaughtered and burned in the churches feel about that? Perhaps you are proud that we refrained from our militarism. But President Clinton had the honesty to refer to our military inaction there as the greatest humanitarian failure of his administration.
I'm curious to whom you refer when you cite the present reigning War Party. I suspect it must be one of the two parties in office, and as the democratic party is in control of all 3 branches of power, and the most troublesome of the two wars we are involved in is Afghanistan, popularly referred to as Obama's War by the press and championed by him from its inception, it must be the current president and leadership in both houses. Or perhaps you are referring to history? The democratic leadership led the country into WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The total US military dead in those wars was about a half million Americans. The two wars begun under republican leadership were of course Afghanistan and Iraq, which together total about one one hundredth of that number. Clearly, then, current and recent history and the numbers would indicate the democratic party to be the party of war. November 2 gives you your first opportunity to affect some change there.
I agree with you about the misguided involvement in the Vietnam War. Eisenhower warned against involving US troops in that war, but Kennedy and Johnson thought otherwise. I can see nothing positive that came about from it. The communist slaughter and punishment of the boat people were not avoided and the civilian deaths produced no positive results that I can see.
Of course we would all have preferred the struggle against tyranny to conclude along the lines of the Cold War, brilliantly conceived by Truman and his cabinet, continued by Eisenhower, and wrapped up by Reagan, with 20 countries and 50 million people freed from repression. Unfortunately, the wisdom of those leaders has been in short supply.
As I recall the last time Israel unilaterally gave up a significant amount of land on the West Bank, the Palestinian response under Hamas was to take strategic advantage of the new territory by moving its rockets in closer to Israel and bombarding the country with them. This probably influences Israelis as to what constitutes land for peace in the minds of their enemy: territory gained from which to further the attempt to annihilate the nation.  But the parties with power and arms in Palestine have been forthright and honest in their intent. They have no desire for a two-state soution in the area, but wish to exterminate Israel and its inhabitants. While that may not be the wish of most residents of the area, it is clearly the wish of those in power. And Israel has responded accordingly.
Perhaps, ostrich-like, you feel that 9/11 was not that significant an event and that Islamists propose little threat to our country. I disagree. And I have faith that in America, at least, the forces of evil will not find enough good men willing to do nothing.

Marie Rehbein
13 years 3 months ago
Perhaps, the following is the most important point made in this article:

"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."

Given that beneficial things can be accomplished by military means, it is important to not lose sight of right and wrong in the process.
13 years 3 months ago
No. 1   I suggest reading, several times, Fr. Kavanaugh's article of last week.

No. 2  Add your combat exposure and what war. Otherwise I question your credentials. Be civil if possible

No. 3  Recall Gen. Patton's axiom: No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

I don't like that quote, but for the 0.1% of Americans that are currently employed by the military rather than a heterogeneous group of draftees, the sentence is both infectious, highly contagioius and malignant.
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 3 months ago

I agree with your assessment. And sometimes the atrocity, usually on a more massive scale, is clearly traceable not to a group of rogue combatants or out of line order from the field, but to national leadership. Authorizing US participation in the firebombing of Dresden comes to mind as an example.
The idea of a just war seems irrational to me as well as the author. Aquinas spoke of morality in terms of choosing the greater good over the lesser. In the case of the decision to go to war, it seems to me more of an issue of choosing the lesser evil, whether the lesser evil is to go to war or to do nothing.

Daniel Haggerty
13 years 3 months ago
This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.  It clearly and eloquently reinforces my belief that our troops shouldn't be in Afghanistan.  I pray that they can soon be replaced by the Peace Corps.
Keyran Moran
13 years 3 months ago
Mr. Mattingly,
I have been traveling in the Free Land of Norway and have only found your response today.

The War Party today is mostly the Israel Lobby as executive and many a non-Jew as Butlers-of-War.

And apparently you are one of the them.

See Stephen Walt on the Israel Lobby 2008 and his blog in Foreign Policy.
Kindly write down any error of any kind and print it here.

That Israel could be exterminated is simply repeating the Holy Lie of the Zees wanting Good Catholics first to pity them as victims and if that does not succeed, the Zees will threaten them with Labeling and Disabling.
Cheers from Norway
I will pray for your Innocent Faith in Good and Evil.
13 years 2 months ago
"Do Not Be Afraid"

> I found your "Faith in Focus" comment "Kill Zone" (11/8) captivating, but
> disturbing.  Although many of our combat service men and women have indeed
> been "trained to kill," it has always been thus with war.  Their
> hyper-vigilance, black and white thinking, and numbing of emotions as a
> result of their training and combat experiences are unfortunately necessary
> traits for both doing their military jobs properly and their survival.
> Although a good number, upon returning home, have and will experience
> adjustment problems that should be treated and not taken lightly (myself
> included as a rifle platoon leader in combat in Vietnam), the vast majority
> move forward to experience moral, responsible and respectable lives.
>      Highlighting and focusing on the Calley and Gibbs atrocities, making
> them seem commonplace in war, and saying your "main fear" is this type
> unacceptable, insensitive behavior will become "true for more of the young,"
> seems unfair and unfounded.  Rather, I believe we are obligated to make
> every effort to embrace those who so bravely served our country and
> experienced those tough moral conflicts that came with the job, not
> criminalize them.  Jesus said, "Do not be afraid."

Sues Krebs
11 years 9 months ago
Why are they attacking civilians?

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