This post was originally published in September of 2010 and updated throughout October 2010. Rolling Stone published a definitive piece about these events:
Early last year, after six hard months soldiering in Afghanistan, a group of American infantrymen reached a momentous decision: It was finally time to kill a haji. Among the men of Bravo Company, the notion of killing an Afghan civilian had been the subject of countless conversations, during lunchtime chats and late-night bull sessions. For weeks, they had weighed the ethics of bagging “savages” and debated the probability of getting caught. Some of them agonized over the idea; others were gung-ho from the start. But not long after the New Year, as winter descended on the arid plains of Kandahar Province, they agreed to stop talking and actually pull the trigger.
CNN now reports:
A military court-martial Thursday found Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs guilty of murdering three Afghan civilians, illegally cutting off pieces of their corpses to keep as “souvenirs” and planting weapons to make the men appear as if they were Taliban fighters killed in legitimate firefights.
In one of the most grisly war crimes investigations to date, 12 American soldiers face charges over a secret “kill team” that allegedly murdered Afghan civilians for sport and collected bits of their fingers as war souvenirs.
Five of the soldiers have been charged with killing three Afghan civilians in January, February and May of this year. Seven of their comrades are accused of helping them cover up the murders and beating up another U.S. soldier — an alleged whistle-blower fresh out of basic training who reported his platoon mates for smoking hashish stolen from Afghans.
Five of the soldiers are charged with murdering three Afghan men who were allegedly killed for sport in separate attacks this year. Seven others are accused of covering up the killings and assaulting a recruit who exposed the murders when he reported other abuses, including members of the unit smoking hashish stolen from civilians.
In one of the most serious accusations of war crimes to emerge from the Afghan conflict, the killings are alleged to have been carried out by members of a Stryker infantry brigade based in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.
According to investigators and legal documents, discussion of killing Afghan civilians began after the arrival of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs at forward operating base Ramrod last November. Other soldiers told the army’s criminal investigation command that Gibbs boasted of the things he got away with while serving in Iraq and said how easy it would be to “toss a grenade at someone and kill them”.
This is monstrous. We should never tarnish all troops with the actions of a few depraved individuals, but just as with Abu Ghraib, we must speak out forcefully against these types of atrocities.
UPDATE: From Reuters:
“Allegations like this are … very serious,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told a news briefing. “Clearly, even if these allegations are proved to be untrue, it is unhelpful. It does not help the perceptions of our forces around the world.”
Morrell declined to comment on the specifics of the charges because the case is still in the military justice system. Five soldiers were charged in June with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province. But new charges disclosed to the media on Wednesday show seven others have also been charged in the case and face accusations that include conspiracy to cover-up the crime.
An Army spokeswoman said four of the soldiers have been charged for keeping body parts, which beyond finger bones and a skull include leg bones and a human tooth. It was unclear where the remains had come from based on the charge sheets.
UPDATE II: Much of the coverage of this barbaric story has been in the foreign press, but now the Washington Post is front-paging it:
AT JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WASH. The U.S. soldiers hatched a plan as simple as it was savage: to randomly target and kill an Afghan civilian, and to get away with it. For weeks, according to Army charging documents, rogue members of a platoon from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, floated the idea. Then, one day last winter, a solitary Afghan man approached them in the village of La Mohammed Kalay. The “kill team” activated the plan.
One soldier created a ruse that they were under attack, tossing a fragmentary grenade on the ground. Then others opened fire. According to charging documents, the unprovoked, fatal attack on Jan. 15 was the start of a months-long shooting spree against Afghan civilians that resulted in some of the grisliest allegations against American soldiers since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.
As I said, we can’t take isolated behavior by evil actors and taint the entire military, nor should we assume guilt until a verdict is in, but we must not turn our glance away, we have to face up to things that are done in our name.
Once more: It’s the moral authority, stupid.
UPDATE III: From ABC News:
Dressed in a t-shirt and Army shorts, a 22-year-old corporal from Wasilla, Alaska casually describes on a video tape made by military investigators how his unit’s “crazy” sergeant randomly chose three unarmed, innocent victims to be murdered in Afghanistan. Corporal Jeremy N. Morlock is one of five GI’s charged with pre-meditated murder in a case that includes allegations of widespread drug use, the collection of body parts and photos of the U.S. soldiers holding the Afghan bodies like hunter’s trophies.
UPDATE IV: More on Jeremy Morlock’s video from the NYT:
In one incident, Specialist Morlock recounted in the video, he described Sergeant Gibbs identifying for no apparent reason an Afghan civilian in a village, then directing Specialist Morlock and another soldier to fire on the man after Sergeant Gibbs lobbed a grenade in his direction.
“He kind of placed me and Winfield off over here so we had a clean line of sight for this guy and, you know, he pulled out one of his grenades, an American grenade, popped it, throws the grenade, and tells me and Winfield: ‘All right, wax this guy. Kill this guy, kill this guy,’ ” Specialist Morlock said.
UPDATE V: New, grisly details from the NYT:
Those who have seen the photos say they are grisly: soldiers beside newly killed bodies, decaying corpses and severed fingers. The dozens of photos, described in interviews and in e-mails and military documents obtained by The Associated Press, were seized by Army investigators and are a crucial part of the case against five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians earlier this year.
Troops allegedly shared the photos by e-mail and thumb drive like electronic trading cards. Now 60 to 70 of them are being kept tightly shielded from the public and even defense attorneys because of fears they could wind up in the news media and provoke anti-American violence. “We’re in a powder-keg situation here,” said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute for Military Justice and a military law professor at Yale University.
UPDATE VI: The NYT continues its in-depth reporting of this horrible story:
Soldiers said Sergeant Gibbs threatened at least one subordinate with death if he ever disclosed the killings. Other soldiers not accused in the deaths say he mocked them for not meeting his standard for men on patrol.
“He told me the type of soldier he was looking for was the type that could kill anybody without any kind of regret,” Pfc. Ashton Moore told an Army investigator in May. When Private Moore, who faces other charges, told Sergeant Gibbs that he would not kill someone without cause, he said the sergeant responded: “And that’s why you’ll be stuck in the truck the whole time.
The guy I’m looking for is the guy that would shoot the dude just because he could shoot the dude.”
…Soldiers interviewed by investigators say Sergeant Gibbs had alluded to previous crimes he committed in Iraq, including one in which he shot into a car carrying an Iraqi family with children.
UPDATE VII: The Washington Post tracks down audio recordings made by a photojournalist embedded with the unit:
The recordings, obtained by The Washington Post, demonstrate the extent to which the platoon was concerned about how the killing was perceived among Afghans. The recordings also raise questions about why Army commanders did not take those suspicions seriously and failed to notice broader signs of trouble in the platoon until a member of the unit, under investigation for hashish use, tipped off military police.
More repugnant details from WaPo:
Mullah Adahdad was standing by an adjacent compound. He caught the attention of the platoon’s staff sergeant, Calvin R. Gibbs, who pointed the cleric out to fellow members of what he described as his “kill team,” according to a videotaped statement given to Army investigators by another soldier in the unit, Spec. Adam C. Winfield.
Winfield said the Afghan was unarmed and “seemed friendly. He didn’t seem to have any sort of animosity towards us.” Gibbs, however, told Winfield and Morlock to walk the cleric into a nearby ditch and put him on his knees, according to statements Winfield and Morlock gave to Army investigators.
“Sgt. Gibbs said, ‘This is how it’s going to go down. You’re going to shoot your weapons, yell grenade. And then I’m going to throw this grenade. And after it goes off, I’m going to drop this grenade next to him,’ ” Winfield stated. “Well, we’re laying there. Morlock told me to shoot. I started shooting, yelled grenade. Grenade blew up. And that was that.”