We often hear, from antiwar activists as well as pious politicians and every sort of commentator, that we should all "support the troops." No matter what one thinks of the particular war being fought, this kind of boilerplate is invariably appended: "But of course," we are told, "everyone supports the troops." We honor them for their service. We pat them on the back and say: "Good job!"
In this context, consider the details of the most recent atrocity coming out of Afghanistan, the activities of the "Thrill Kill platoon," which is accused of murdering Afghan civilians and keeping body parts as trophies. The alleged mastermind of the thrill-killers, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, is also under investigation by military authorities on suspicion of carrying out similar murders in Iraq. The Gibbs "kill team" is suspected of slaughtering at least seven Afghan civilians, and quite possibly more, in the most heinous manner imaginable. Gibbs and four others were arrested in June, and seven others are being held.
These twelve apostles of mayhem — assigned to the 2nd Stryker Brigade, and stationed at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, along the border with Pakistan — randomly chose unarmed Afghan civilians to murder. Then they shot them, or blew them up with grenades, mutilating the victims. Gibbs, the alleged ringleader, made necklaces out of the body parts. They covered up their killing spree by placing weapons near the corpses, and the incidents went down in the records as gun battles with "insurgents."
Gibbs reportedly has a tattoo on his left calf which is a pictorial record of his crime spree: it consists of two crossed pistols encircled by six skulls. According to news reports, the red skulls indicate murders carried out in Iraq, and the blue skulls represent Afghan kills.
Knowledge of the killings was widely shared in the camp, and it’s hard to imagine higher-ups were unaware of what
was going on. But there was indeed one apparently unwilling participant, Adam Winfield, who desperately tried to reach out to his parents, to whom he confessed the murders.
The "honor the troops" brigade will tell us this is just another case of a few bad apples: this latest incident is no reason to condemn the entire US military – is it?
Well, quite frankly, it is, because, as Winfield pointed out to his parents in a February 14 Facebook posting: "Pretty much the whole platoon knows about it. It’s okay with all of them pretty much. Except me…. I want to do something about it [but] the only problem is I don’t feel safe here telling anyone." "I talked to someone," Winfield continued, "and they told me this stuff happens all the time and that when we get back there is always someone that spills the beans so it normally works its way out."
Winfield’s father asked, "No one else thought it was wrong?" Winfield’s reply:
"No, everyone just wants to kill people at any cost, they don’t care, the Army is full of a bunch of scumbags, I realized."
Winfield resigned his position as the platoon’s team leader because "I cannot be a leader in a platoon that allows this to happen." He went on to make a key point:
"There are no more good men left here…. I started to think whether I should quit and just give up because it’s stupid to get smoked in Afghanistan. The Army really let me down when I thought I would come out here to do good, maybe make some change in this country…. I find out that it’s all a lie."
None of this would have come out if not for an investigation into alleged drug use by soldiers. Investigators uncovered widespread and rampant drug use, including hashish, opium, and anti-depressants which are issued by the military: in the course of their investigation, one of the thrill-killers – apparently under the influence at the time – spilled the beans. In addition, Winfield’s parents made repeated calls to military authorities immediately upon learning of this horror, but before I get to any of that I want to underscore Winfield’s words:
"There are no more good men left here."
Of course there aren’t. What kind of person joins the military at this particular point in time – a point when the US is engaged in endless wars of aggression, and stories of atrocities committed by "our" soldiers are coming out all the time? For the most part, precisely the kind of person who would delight in the orgy of bloodlust conducted by the "thrill kill platoon." The military has become an outlet for the sociopaths in our midst.
Yes, I know, with the recession people will be joining for economic reasons: after all, where else can they find a job?
Economic considerations no doubt play a large part in the decision to go into the military, but other factors also play a part in making this choice: alongside economic necessity, in this instance, is the generalized knowledge that atrocities are being committed over there. Winfield says the whole platoon knew about what was going on with the "thrill killers," and the same can be said about the entire country when it comes to atrocities being committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by US troops, and I don’t just mean Abu Ghraib. This grisly record is common knowledge, and, in deciding to join up, the prospective US soldier is consciously choosing to ignore or downplay the moral aspects of being asked to commit atrocities: it’s much more important to him (or her) to make a living.
This is the definition of a moral monster.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the decision to seek a career in the military did not involve becoming such a monster. That time has long since passed. To put on an American uniform today is to become complicit in a criminal enterprise, and this characterization is not by any means limited to the thrill-killer platoon but to the entire killing machine deployed to carry out Washington’s grand design.
When Winfield’s parents contacted US military authorities they were told nothing could be done unless Winfield came forward in Afghanistan – where his life was at risk. The others suspected him of being "soft," and threats had already come in from the thrill-killers that if he squealed his life was worth nothing: the ringleader waved the finger of a dead Afghan in his face to illustrate the point. The day he learned of the situation his son was in – Valentine’s Day, a Sunday — Winfield’s father left message on the Army Inspector General’s hotline, the Army’s criminal investigations division, and the office of Sen. Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.
The response was nil. A few days later, Private Winfield was forced by his sergeant to engage in yet another random murder: Winfield says he aimed high and missed, but the military is still charging him in the killing.
The Army knew what was going on. As that officer said to Winfield, this sort of thing goes on all the time. It’s part of our "footprint," even in areas where we aren’t engaged in military operations. Where US military bases exist, murders and rapes committed by US military personnel are common: the bases themselves are ringed with bars, houses of prostitution, and other less-than-savory establishments, catering to the thuggish tastes and habits of our centurions as they guard the perimeters of the American empire. These bases are running sores on the faces of our client states and protectorates, and, as in Japan, immensely resented ambassadors of ill will.
So what can we do about it? Short of getting the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the rest of the world, the antiwar movement can engage in an aggressive campaign of counter-recruitment. This latest atrocity, which has been downplayed by the US media, should be publicized extensively, in tandem with a focused effort to persuade young people not to join up. If the media is running "public service announcements" and ads promoting military service, we should run counter-ads – and take full advantage of the controversy when the networks refuse to run them.
The US military is a criminal enterprise, just as the ruling elite in this country is the equivalent of a crime syndicate: and they are getting away with murder. One day, the people’s justice will be visited on them. Let’s hope that rough justice doesn’t unfairly impact us all.
The US is exporting its sociopaths overseas, in hopes that the havoc such people usually wreak can be put to some "good" use, but such callousness will soon blow back in our faces when Johnnie-the-thug comes marching home. We’ve already seen a spate of vicious murders committed by just-released veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars: mental illness is rife among these veterans, and a disproportionately large segment is turning violent. More worrisome, gang members are reportedly joining in droves, and being accepted because the military is desperate to make its recruiting quota. They are boasting that when they come back, trained to kill by professionals, they’ll be in good shape to continue their criminal activities on the home front.
It will be a harsh justice indeed as these deranged killers visit the same sort of destruction on us as they inflicted on their innocent victims overseas.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’ll be speaking at California Lutheran University’s Lundring Events Center with Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism, a delightfully comprehensive history of the modern libertarian movement on October 26 from 5:30p.m.-7:30p.m. The forum, with the topic "Anti-Interventionism: The Left and Right Wing Traditions," is being hosted by the Steven and Susan Woskow Trust and co-sponsored by Students for Liberty, the World Can’t Wait, Ventura County Libertarian Party, Center for Equality & Justice, and Antiwar.com. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited so please RSVP to secure your seat: Steven Woskow at 805-306-1860.
The autumn Antiwar.com speaking tour is still shaping up, on both coasts, and I’ll announce events in this space as they are finalized. There’s still time to book me at your campus or local event: for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.