This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
For Americans, there’s actually a positive side to the murder charges pending against five Lewis- McChord soldiers.
Five is a minuscule fraction of the 4,000 members of the 5th Stryker Brigade, which came home this summer after a year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Atrocities happen in every war, but today’s professional all-volunteer American Army today may be as scrupulous a combat force as this nation has ever fielded.
There’s also the fact that the probe of the suspicious deaths of three Afghan civilians earlier this year was initiated by the brigade itself against several of its own. In the past – after Vietnam’s My Lai massacre, for example – investigations often happened despite the unit’s commanders, not because of them.
So – some good news inside the bad.
Unfortunately, the Afghan people – the people whose attitudes will determine whether America succeeds or fails in Afghanistan – may not pick up on these nuances.
The allegations are shocking. According to Army prosecutors, the five soldiers, including a staff sergeant, participated directly or indirectly in the deliberate killing of the three Afghan men, who appear to have been targeted at random. If the charges are true, the responsible soldiers appear to have killed the three men more or less for sport, on the assumption they could get away with it under the cover of wartime.
They are entitled to the presumption of innocence. Due process often casts an entirely different light on seemingly incriminating facts. The point is that any such atrocity in Afghanistan can fatally undermine the U.S. mission there. The Taliban will inevitably prevail in that country if enough of its people view the United States and its local allies as enemies. Any American who commits a crime against an Afghan noncombatant betrays America itself.
The Abu Ghraib scandal showed how this works. Photographs of U.S. soldiers humiliating and degrading prisoners held in the Baghdad prison – most of them probably innocent of any crime – inflamed the Middle East.
Extremists used them as “proof” that American soldiers in Iraq were callous, Muslim-hating conquerors. The photos helped recruit young Middle Easterners to fight against U.S. forces. The Americans behind the abuses in Abu Ghraib may have been responsible for as many U.S. deaths as any Iraqi insurgent commander.
Hence the importance of the case against the five JBLM soldiers. If they are innocent and there’s another plausible explanation for the three Afghans’ deaths, the facts must be dug out and broadcast to the world. If the accused soldiers – or some of them – did commit murder, the world must see the United States willingly hold its own troops accountable.
All military forces have their sociopaths. A corrupt army promotes them; an honorable army convicts them. We can only hope the people of Afghanistan can see the difference.