In documents released by the U.S. Army yesterday, details emerged concerning five U.S. soldiers charged with murdering Afghan civilians, and seven additional soldiers charged with conspiring to conceal the murders.
According to the charges, five soldiers from the Army’s Fifth Stryker brigade killed three male Afghan civilians with grenades and guns. In addition, soldiers allegedly took pieces of the civilians’ bodies — teeth, finger bones, leg bones and a skull — as gruesome trophies. (Since Muslims believe bodies should be buried intact, this is an affront to the victims’ religion, as well as their corpses.) The twelve soldiers also face a variety of other charges, including stabbing a corpse, photographing the corpses, shooting at Afghan civilians, beating a junior soldier to keep him from reporting them, and lying to fellow soldiers.
Lawyers for some of the soldiers have denied the charges.
While we do not yet know if these soldiers will be convicted or acquitted, it should be clear that attacks on civilians are against our national character and a violation of human rights. They put our soldiers in danger of retaliation and they damage America’s image all over the world.
The United States’ military is right to prosecute the Fifth Stryker soldiers, assuming they have sufficient evidence to charge them. Justice is important for its own sake — and as a deterrent. If there was negligence in the chain of command, there should be consequences not only for the soldiers directly involved, but also for their commanding officers. When U.S. soldiers commit these kinds of crimes, it needs to be clear to the families of the victims, and to the wider community, that the American leadership and citizenship — and the vast majority of those serving in the military — abhor these actions. (The importance of having consequences for crimes and misconduct also suggests that using private security contractors, who are accountable to no one, is an extremely bad idea.)
I’d also encourage a policy of quietly compensating the victims’ families. I can see arguments against this course of action (for instance, that it could devolve into “paying off” families in order to avoid publicly acknowledging the crimes), but we must face the fact that the victims likely had families who were depending on them to be breadwinners. Three Afghan men — Gul Mudin, Mullah Adahdad, and Marach Agha — are gone forever and the consequences to their families may be even more far-reaching than we know.
However, by themselves, actions taken after the fact will not make enough of a difference. First and foremost, we need to care for our soldiers’ mental health. Long tours of duty, repeated tours, and grueling warfare against insurgents wreak havoc on the psyches of the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Care2 members have linked to news articles describing the damage constant battle can do to men and women’s minds, and have highlighted the work of one psychiatrist providing unlimited free therapy to combat veterans and their families. Supporting members of our military and veterans by ensuring there is plenty of funding for mental health care, encouraging the military to give soldiers shorter terms of duty, and insisting conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder be taken seriously should be a priority both because we care about our soldiers and because the constant stress of waiting, fighting, and waiting can lead tired, bored, angry, hurting soldiers to lash out at innocent civilians.
Finally, we have to recognize the fact that however well our soldiers are cared for and trained, and however carefully they are screened, where there is war, there will be crimes against civilians. Some percentage of the military, however miniscule, will use their power and their weapons to hurt innocent people. Even if we don’t believe this outweighs the importance of our presence in Afghanistan (and Iraq), it is irresponsible and naive to ignore it. Instead of ignoring these crimes, let’s look for solutions in recruiting, training, commanding and providing rest and mental health care to every member of the military so we can help ensure our troops will be equipped to make smart and honorable decisions.
And we must remember that we’re talking about people — individuals with lives and with loves. Rest in peace, Gul Mudin, Mullah Adahdad, and Marach Agha.
photo credit: Gopal Aggarwal's flickr (gopal1035)
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