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Exemplary Army justice for Afghan war crimes

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 26, 2011 at 3:51 pm with No Comments »
March 25, 2011 3:53 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The prosecution of war crimes at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Afghanistan promises to become one of the Army’s most honorable episodes – if it focuses as much attention on commanders as it has on enlisted soldiers.

The trials and hearings at Joint Base Lewis-McChord have revealed an attitude of intolerance of atrocities and criminal behavior that might have been dismissed as the cost of doing business in previous wars. Last week’s sentencing of one defendant, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, shows how tough the Army has gotten.

Morlock pleaded guilty to three counts of murdering Afghan civilians and several less serious crimes in what prosecutors say was a series of killings carried out last year by Morlock and four of his platoon-mates. But he has been cooperating with the prosecution and is expected to be the key witness against the accused ringleader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.

He was sentenced to 24 years Wednesday, a tough deal for a defendant turned state’s evidence. Expect worse for Gibbs or any of the other three if convicted after a trial.

Gibbs is accused of enlisting the others in a sociopathic sport that consisted of killing noncombatants opportunistically when on patrol, claiming they were enemies. Soldiers in any conflict can break under the stress of combat and kill indiscriminately, but this a case of cold premeditation.

Three other soldiers accused of lesser crimes, including smoking hashish and beating up a whistle-blower, have already been given bad conduct discharges from the Army, a stigma that will follow them the rest of their lives.

Military authorities have also investigated whatever breakdown in command helped set the stage for the atrocities. There’s considerable evidence that these soldiers’ brigade leader was flouting a counterinsurgency strategy that focused on protection of civilians. The three murdered civilians weren’t protected, to say the least.

So far, the Army has not responded to The News Tribune’s requests for the 500-page report on the review. It would do itself a favor by releasing the document; the investigation itself is evidence of an organization bent on policing itself. And the public must be assured that commanders are being held as accountable as their troops.

Let’s hope the world, particularly Afghanistan, is paying attention to the courts-martial at JBLM. Morlock’s conviction roughly coincides with a German magazine’s publication of sickening photos of him posing with one of the murdered Afghans. One picture shows him grinning and holding the man’s head up like a hunting trophy.

That’s a revolting statement about the depravity some soldiers are capable of when they lose their moral bearings in a combat zone. But the Army’s aggressive prosecution makes its own statement about what the U.S. military – and America itself – expects of its troops.

“This is not us,” said Morlock’s prosecutor, Capt. Dre Leblanc. “We don’t do this. This is not how we’re trained. This is not the Army.”

The punishments these soldiers face – combined with public accountability for their commanders – will help put an exclamation mark after those words.

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