By Keith Johnson
Coalition forces in Afghanistan fear that gruesome pictures showing American troops posing with the corpses of murdered and mutilated Afghan civilians may provoke a more devastating backlash than graphic photographs taken of U.S. troops abusing prisoners in the notorious Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib.
In one of three photographs recently published in an edition of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, Army Cpl. Jeremy Morlock is pictured smiling as he poses near the body of a dead young victim whose head is yanked back as if he were a hunting trophy.
Der Spiegel claims to have nearly 4,000 similar photographs and videos. The vast majority of the photos remain under lock and key, but some have leaked out on the Internet. These items are said to be part of a collection that members of a self-described American “kill team” compiled while deployed in northern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province early last year.
Twelve soldiers are currently standing trial in the U.S. on various charges connected to the slaying of unarmed Afghans that occurred in that region between January and May 2010. Five of the soldiers are accused of premeditated murder. They allegedly engaged in “sport killings” and then attempted to cover up their crimes by staging combat situations to appear as though they had been provoked.
The other seven have been accused of collecting the body parts of dismembered victims, abusing drugs and attacking a fellow soldier who blew the whistle.
Morlock has already reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and could serve a maximum prison term of 24 years in exchange for cooperation in testifying against his codefendants.
In typical fashion, the U.S. government has distanced itself from the atrocities and laid the blame solely at the feet of the young men it trained to kill. The photographs depict “actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army,” said Army Col. Thomas Collins in an official statement from the Pentagon. “We apologize for the distress these photos cause.”
That statement is hauntingly reminiscent of many others issued by the United States in the wake of similar tragedies. Following the Abu Ghraib scandal, then- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered an almost identical apology when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 7, 2004, saying, “To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was inconsistent with the values of our nation, it was inconsistent with the teachings of the military to the men and women of the armed forces, and it was certainly fundamentally unAmerican.”
Contrary to the claims made in these statements, such brutalities seem quite consistent with the manner in which some American troops conduct themselves in the foreign countries where they’ve been deployed. Aside from these latest incidents in Afghanistan and the well-known atrocities carried out at Abu Ghraib—where prisoners were physically, psychologically and sexually tortured by American captors—several other callous acts have been documented in recent years, suggesting that a sadistic culture of violence is epidemic within the ranks of our armed service personnel.
In 2007, U.S. soldiers aboard an Apache helicopter repeatedly opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians in Baghdad, leaving two men dead and several others severely injured, including two children. Leaked footage of the killings contained audio where the soldiers can be heard celebrating the deaths and laughing as a Bradley fighting vehicle runs over one of the dead Iraqis. Then, in 2008, a Marine on patrol in Iraq was videotaped throwing a puppy over a cliff while being cheered on by a fellow Marine. That Marine, Lance Cpl. David Motari, has since been kicked out of the military.
What is particularly disturbing about these acts is that they are not just carried out by one disturbed individual, but by groups of them who all seem to share the same sadism. This contradicts U.S. claims that these are “isolated” incidents carried out by “rogue” elements. The only reason they appear isolated is because they have been made notorious by the video, audio and photographic evidence that happens to have exposed them. Meanwhile, thousands more civilian deaths go unexplained.
In Afghanistan, in excess of 2,700 civilians were killed in 2010. Many of these casualties can be blamed on the ruthless policies carried out under the direction of our top military brass.
One of the most vicious and despised tactics currently employed by the U.S. consists of “night raids”— military operations by U.S. troops, who break into civilian homes in the dead of night to look for weapons and suspects. It is an affront to local cultures and more unpopular than air strikes.
With this callous disregard for human rights, is it any wonder our soldiers mimic this same attitude? Though the U.S. continues to fear-monger about the possible repercussions that these “kill team” photographs may spark, it’s not likely to manifest itself inside Afghanistan. Those people don’t need photographs to remind them of the daily horrors that American occupation brings. They see these things with their own eyes, and the indelible image they imprint on their minds leaves a far more lasting impression than any film.
Keith Johnson is an independent journalist and the editor of “Revolt of the Plebs,” an alternative news website that can be found at RevoltofthePlebs.com. He is the author of numerous articles and essays, all of which can be found on his blog, RevoltofthePlebs.wordpress.com