“You guys wanna wax this guy, or what?”
That’s how Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs suggested the attack, Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock tells his interrogator. In a short leaked tape (my transcript below), Morlock is seen describing how he and his fellow soldiers killed an unarmed Afghan civilian, instructing him to stand near a wall before hurling a grenade at him and shooting him.
In my first Care2 post, I described the allegations against five U.S. soldiers who were accused of killing three Afghan civilians for sport, then keeping parts of their bodies as trophies. Seven additional soldiers are charged with conspiring to cover up the crime.
Monday, Morlock became the first of the twelve soldiers to face a pre-court martial hearing. At Morlock’s hearing, the Los Angeles Times reports that soldiers identified Gibbs as the ringleader of all three attacks, and called Morlock his right-hand man. The extensive statements about the killings Morlock made during interrogation figured largely in the hearing, though his lawyers are saying they were made under the influence of medicines and should be disregarded.
“It Really Comes Down To The Leaders”
Watching the video, one of my first emotional reactions was horror at how young Morlock is. Though I’d known it intellectually, the video of this young man describing war crimes as if they were casual cruelty inflicted on a fraternity pledge made the facts hit me viscerally — we are giving barely-adult men and women assault weapons, dropping them into life-and-death combat, and acting shocked when a few of them end up killing unarmed civilians.
When I called my father, who served in the Navy during Vietnam and has filled our house with carefully studied books on the Civil War and World Wars, he pointed out that Morlock’s youth wasn’t in and of itself the problem.
“These boys might be young but they’re certainly old enough to know right from wrong,” he said. “The problem is that young soldiers like that are still growing and learning, so they’re malleable. It really comes down to the leaders. The entire attitude of the company depends on how leaders handle and discipline their soldiers, and what they expect of them. Soldiers learn quickly what they will and will not get away with, and what kind of standards they’ll be held to. Of course, many officers are very young themselves, and they get broken down by battle just like the enlisted men do. Young officers have to be able to tell when their men are cracking or losing discipline. We have to train them to be able to cope with that kind of internal breakdown just as much as they have to cope with battle situations, or we’ll see even more incidents like this.”
Emphasizing the central role of leadership — especially when we’re talking about leadership of soldiers who our country doesn’t consider mature enough to drink alcohol — is especially apropos in this case. Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times reports that Staff Sgt. Gibbs, superior officer to the other soldiers charged with murder, has been fingered as the planner and ringleader in the killings. While it doesn’t excuse the other soldiers, without Gibb’s perverse leadership the situation would almost certainly have been very different.
Nor does the guilt among commanding officers seem to stop at Gibbs. To me, this sentence from the Los Angeles Times‘ report of the hearing is extremely telling: “Of the 18 witnesses listed for Monday’s hearing, 14 invoked their 5th amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying, including the lieutenant of the platoon.” While we can’t draw any firm conclusions from their invocation, these witnesses, including the platroon’s lieutenant, believe themselves to have committed prosecutable crimes related to the charges being addressed at Morlock’s hearing.
If Morlock’s testimony is true (and naturally that should not be taken for granted), commanding officers also failed to realize that at least one of their men, Staff Sgt. Gibbs, had a violent hatred for Afghan civilians, and supposedly bragged about killing an Iraqi family during a previous tour of duty. If these boasts and rages had been taken more seriously, three Afghan men might still be alive.
Even once the atrocities started, the Army’s leadership may have known what was happening but failed to act. According to the parents of one of the soldiers accused of murder, Specialist Adam Winfield, their son attempted to alert Army leadership through them. They say he messaged them saying soldiers in his troop had murdered a civilian, and they had tried “nearly a half dozen times” to pass on the message. An Army spokesperson would not comment. Winfield, like the other charged soldiers, denies the allegations against him.
Two kinds of leadership failed here: the on-the-ground leadership that should have noticed warning signs and made it clear that attacks on civilians are unacceptable, and the Army leadership that may not have acted on warnings, or trained and selected on-the-ground officers with enough care.
Hugh Thompson’s Heroism Demonstrates the Power of Leadership
In the midst of the horrific My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers tortured, raped, and slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, three men stopped the merciless killing. Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson Jr., after pleading with the troops to stop, landed his helicopter and ordered his crew to train their guns on his fellow G.I.s., and to open fire if the soldiers continued killing civilians. They managed to stop the butchery and evacuate numerous survivors, mostly children. Many years later, Thompson talked about the massacre with a BBC reporter. Asked how it was possible for “normal people” to participate in such vicious war crimes, Thompson doesn’t pause for a second.
“I blame the number one cause is bad leadership,” he says. “Negative leadership, bad leadership.”
The reporter presses for a better explanation. “These people killed with their bare hands,” he presses. “They raped, they murdered…how do you explain soldiers doing that?”
“The leadership that allows them to do it,” Thomspson responds. “The negative peer pressure. Uh…prejudice.” He pauses. “Fear.”
We would be naive to think we can continue to send soldiers into combat and expect a war free of war crimes — but we can be sure that if we’re not providing tough, honorable, perceptive leadership from the Commander-in-Chief down through the non-commissioned officers, we can expect many more innocent people to suffer.
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There are a couple of places I’ve listened to several times but am not perfectly sure of the wording — if anyone has corrections please feel free to leave them in the comments. I’ve attempted to keep in fillers like “you knows” to convey Morlock’s tone, and described his basic gestures in italics for those who can’t see the video.
Video from ABC News.
Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock, a young white man dressed in t-shirt and army shorts, sits with an older interrogator who is wearing camouflage. Morlock speaks conversationally and a little vaguely, as if he’s trying to remember some uncomfortable everyday occurrence. The interrogator speaks calmly and conversationally.
Morlock: So…we identify a guy, like, y’know. Gibbs — Gibbs makes a comment like “Hey, you guys wanna — you guys wanna wax this guy or what? ” And you know, he’d set it up. So he grabbed the dude, you know, put him… Gestures ‘placing something’ with his hands, leans back with his right hand up to his face.
Interrogator: Put him while he was still alive?
Morlock: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Kinda, kinda set the whole scenario.
Interrogator: So, what did he do? Explain everything.
Morlock: Covers his face with his left hand as if trying to remember. Uh, we had this guy by his compound and so Gibbs, would, y’know, walked him out, and set him in place, like, “Hey, stand here.”
Interrogator: Was he…and he was fully cooperating?
Morlock: I mean, yeah.
Interrogator: Was he armed?
Morlock: No, not that we were aware of. Leans forward and looks at the floor. Um…
Interrogator: So you pulled him out of his place?
Morlock: Uh, he wasn’t — I don’t think he was inside, he was just kind of by his, by his little hut area and uh, Gibbs set [sent?], set up a couple of people. He sent Rodriguez off, off a little ways, pull some far side security [?]. So — so I don’t even know if Rodriguez was aware of what was going on.
Another interrogator from behind camera: Oh that’s why…oh, okay, I understand.
Morlock: And then, uh…
Interrogator: So then — so where did he stand him? Next to a wall?
Morlock: Yeah, it was kind of next to a wall. So where Gibbs could get, like, behind cover after the grenade went off. Gestures moving behind a wall with his hands. And then he kinda placed me and Winfield off over here, to have a clean line of sight for this guy and uh… Pauses, closes eyes. You know, uh, he pulled out one of his grenades, American grenade (gestures pulling grenade pin), you know, popped it, throws the grenade, then tells me and Winfield, “All right, dude, wax this guy — kill this guy, kill this guy.”
The leaked tape run by CNN then contained another clip from the same interrogation. The man behind the camera, who they identified as the CID, asks: “Did you see him present any weapons or did he — was he agressive to you at all? Did he –”
Morlock, who is leaning back as if tired, responds clearly, “No, not at all. Nothing. He wasn’t a threat.”
Photo of soldier firing a gun from Gopal Aggarwal's flickr, licensed for reuse through Creative Commons license.
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