2011-03-21 US military blames photos of war crimes for causing "distress" [Update 2]

UPDATE: Soldier sentenced for murder: "I lost my moral compass."
UPDATE 2: Rolling Stone, "The Kill Team"
Updates on the turn

“We apologize for the distress these photos cause”

On Sunday, the German weekly Der Spiegel published three photos -- from a reported trove of 4,000 videos and photos -- taken by members of a US army unit operating in Kandahar province last year. Two of the photos show soldiers in the unit lifting the body of an Afghan civilian by the hair and posing thus for the camera; the third shows two Afghans apparently or possibly killed while handcuffed together back to back. The photographs are not yet available onsite at Der Spiegel; David Dayen at firedoglake links to them here, here, and here.

As the Washington Post reported Sunday night, the identities of Gul Mudin, an unarmed Afghan civilian killed by the 5th Stryker Brigade unit, and the two soldiers photographed treating his body as a trophy have been known for some time. Twelve soldiers from the unit are currently being prosecuted in the deaths of three unarmed Afghan civilians last year; two are charged with murder and could face life imprisonment or the death penalty if convicted. The Post follows up with the best analysis so far of the impact these photos might have on those cases.

It is news, however, that the unit would have collected such a store of photographic evidence of their activities -- the Post, following suppressed military court evidence in the US, refers to "several hundred," but the Guardian, citing Der Spiegel, refers to 4,000.

The most telling news of all, however, is the official reaction of the US military to the publication of these three photographs.

In a statement released by Col Thomas Collins Sunday night, the US Army said:

“Today Der Spiegel published photographs depicting actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army. We apologize for the distress these photos cause ... The actions portrayed in these photographs remain under investigation and are now the subject of ongoing U.S. court-martial proceedings, in which the accused are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.” [Reconstructed from two media sources]

Granted, the statement calls the apparent mockery of a dead body "repugnant" to members of the US Army. But the only straight apology it offers is for the photographs themselves and the impact they may have. That apology is all the more odd since the US Army did not release these photos and a US military court has attempted to suppress them.

We are left to ponder the mindset that considers publication of evidence of a crime more worrisome than the crime itself. We recall that after the publication of the first photos from Abu Ghraib in 2004, Bush administration officials professed to be shocked by the evidence and insisted it was the work of only "a few bad apples," low-level enlisted personnel whom they then proceeded to prosecute sternly. Years later, in spite of the findings of the Senate Armed Services Committee that what happened at Abu Ghraib was the result of a system of attitudes and practices developed within the Department of Defense, from the top down, to deal with prisoners at Guantanamo and then exported to US sites overseas, no one other than the "few bad apples" has been investigated or prosecuted for those crimes in Iraq.

In a system that privileges manners ("We're sorry you've seen these rude photos") over morals ("Murder is a war crime"), telling the truth (publishing the photos) becomes a revolutionary act. It is not hard to see how US soldiers have absorbed that pattern of amorality -- manners ("It's ok if you don't get caught") over morals or principle -- if it is so evident in every official statement released by the Department of Defense, as it is in this one, nor how much courage and intelligence it must take for an enlisted man or woman to resist the system, openly or covertly.

UPDATE: Soldier sentenced for murder: "I lost my moral compass."

Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, was sentenced on Wednesday, 23 March, by a military court in Washington State to twenty-four years in prison for his part in the murder of three Afghan civilians. He will be eligible for parole in seven years.

Before sentencing, he read out an apology in which he confessed to recognizing that during his time in Afghanistan, he had "lost [his] moral compass," an admission that in theory should have some significance for others higher in the chain of command:

Civilian attorneys for Morlock and other defendants, all enlisted men, have suggested the Stryker Brigade suffered from a breakdown in command and that higher-ranking officers bore some responsibility for the misbehavior of their troops.

One other element of Morlock's plea deal is notable:

Speaking under oath at the hearing, Morlock also implicated the four other members of his infantry unit's so-called "kill team" and agreed to testify further against them if called as a prosecution witness for their courts-martial.

The same condition has been applied to the two most recent plea deals negotiated before military commissions at Guantanamo, those of Omar Khadr and Noor Uthman Muhammed, which we plan to cover in an upcoming review.

UPDATE 2: Rolling Stone, "The Kill Team"

Rolling Stone has published a detailed narrative of the history in Afghanistan of Bravo Company, 3rd platoon, 5th Stryker Brigade, the company concerned in these cases.

The article doesn't advance our knowledge of the legal processes concluded and underway, but it is disturbing background to the relatively limited investigations and prosecutions that appear to be the result for the moment. Rolling Stone publishes more photos than Der Spiegel did, along with two videos that must come with warnings. It is not clear who the Afghans killed in these videos were; it is clear, though, that these were produced as trophy records, widely shared among members of the company, which is at least a violation of the US military code and of international law.

Two questions remain. Mark Boal concludes his article by noting that no senior officers or officials have been investigated in these cases, in spite of repeated warning signs of dangerous attitudes towards Afghans among members of the company:

So far, though, no officers or senior officials have been charged in either the murders or the cover-up. Last October, the Army quietly launched a separate investigation, guided by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, into the critical question of officer accountability. But the findings of that inquiry, which was concluded last month, have been kept secret – and the Army refuses to say whether it has disciplined or demoted any of the commanders responsible for 3rd Platoon. Even if the commanding officers were not co-conspirators or accomplices in the crimes, they repeatedly ignored clear warning signs and allowed a lethally racist attitude to pervade their unit. Indeed, the resentment of Afghans was so commonplace among soldiers in the platoon that when Morlock found himself being questioned by Army investigators, he expressed no pity or remorse about the murders.

Toward the end of Morlock's interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. "None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people," Morlock said.

Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. "Some shit goes down," he said, "you're gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck 'em."

And we recall that Der Spiegel claims to have a trove of 4,000 photos and videos. It is hard to believe that they all concern the deaths of only three individuals.

In other words,

They just apologized for us. We are so sorry that you are so squeamish. What are the names and details of these men, and why aren't they as well known and featured in NYT profiles as Bradley Manning, also presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty?

Collective madness

The government structure and some of the military leadership seems to be out of control. Certainly outside the control of the American people.

Killing and torture for entertainment is evidence of a psycopathic condition. From what I've seen, this is in no way is compatable with American values and mores.

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