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An impressive Army probe of atrocities in Afghanistan

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 17, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
October 17, 2011 5:49 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Stryker brigade soldiers connected to the murder of three Afghan noncombatants last year face grave charges or have already been convicted. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs – the accused ringleader – will soon be on trial at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

All are enlisted men and lower-ranking noncommissioned officers – toward the bottom of the military hierarchy. The buck doesn’t stop with them. An exhaustive Army investigation has now detailed negligence on the part of the killers’ superiors.

Some of the problems identified by the investigator, Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, seem purely accidental – especially reassignments that too often threw commanders together with unfamiliar troops. The platoon’s senior noncommissioned officer suffered head and back injuries that prevented him from accompanying the men when they left their base for combat missions.

The perpetrators’ platoon wound up under the supervision of officers who either didn’t know its increasingly malignant culture – fraught with drug use, indiscipline and weapons violations – or didn’t look hard enough to see it.

The failure to look hard enough helped set the stage for the murders. The lack of vigilance is summed up by the fact that the platoon was housed more than 200 meters away from the officers and senior noncommissioned officers who bore immediate responsibility for the soldiers.

Their platoon leader was green, new to combat, unfamiliar with Stryker units and reportedly had a tendency to ingratiate himself with his subordinates. They realized they could get away with things under his command. The lieutenant posed with the body of an Afghan who’d been killed in combat; some of his soldiers realized that they could do likewise.

The captains who oversaw the lieutenant and his platoon should have spotted the trouble but didn’t, according to Twitty’s 532-page report. And Col. Harry Tunnell, who commanded the entire brigade, gave all the wrong signals when he appeared to repudiate the overall allied strategy of protecting Afghan civilians.

Tunnell wasn’t responsible for the actions of the platoon, but Twitty concluded that the colonel was unfit for combat command. The Army was derelict in not removing him.

The buck stops quite high in this case. Not all soldiers possess a functioning moral compass; it’s the job of their commanders to preserve American values in combat zones in distant parts of the world.

But Americans can take pride in one part of this disturbing case: The investigation itself. The reprimands that went all the way up the chain of command to Tunnell himself are evidence of an Army that takes accountability very, very seriously.

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