News is still filtering out today about a US Army Staff Sergeant who allegedly yesterday (Sunday) left his barracks in southern Afghanistan before dawn and walked to the rural villages of Balandi and Alokzai in Afghan's southern Panjwai district and went on a shooting rampage, murdering sixteen unarmed civilians in their homes. Reportedly mostly women and children are among the dead. The number of wounded is still not known.
The male soldier was apparently by himself as he walked from house to house opening fire Sunday on the Afghan villagers as they slept. Apparently some bodies have also been burned.
"No Taliban were here. No gunbattle was going on," cried out one woman, who said four people were killed in the village of Alokzai, all members of her family. "We don't know why this foreign soldier came and killed our innocent family members. Either he was drunk or he enjoyed killing civilians."
The other 12 dead were from Balandi village, said Samad Khan, a farmer who lost all 11 members of his family, including women and children. Khan was away from the village when the attack occurred and returned to find his family members shot and burned. One of his neighbors was also killed, he said.
"This is an anti-human and anti-Islamic act," Khan said. "Nobody is allowed in any religion in the world to kill children and women."
One woman opened a blue blanket with pink flowers to reveal the body of her 2-year-old child, who was wearing a blood-soaked shirt.
"Was this child Taliban? There is no Taliban here" said Gul Bushra. The Americans "are always threatening us with dogs and helicopters during night raids."
U.S. forces have been implicated before in other violence in the same area. Four soldiers from a Stryker brigade out of Lewis-McChord, Washington, have been sent to prison in connection with the 2010 killing of three unarmed men during patrols in Kandahar province's Maiwand district, which is just northwest of Panjwai. They were accused of forming a "kill team" that murdered Afghan civilians for sport — slaughtering victims with grenades and powerful machine guns during patrols, then dropping weapons near their bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.
[Read More: 'American opens fire on Afghan Villagers - kills 16']
Of course after having recently contributed an article on this website associated with the Hoddle Street Massacre of 1987, another such a tragic incident is on my mind.
[Read article: 'RMC Duntroon officer training perpetuates a dangerous bullying culture']
As the incident is too fresh to know the truth, the causes, the details, no fair assessment can yet be made. That will be the task of the investigation as promised by US President Barack Obama.
Some questions though.
2. Why was a US soldier, irrespective of rank and role, able to leave his barracks with a loaded weapon(s) unauthorised?
3. What drove an experienced senior soldier to murder local civilians under the US protectorate and why did he target the specific villages of Balandi and Alokzai - was there a particular incident(s) involving this staff sergeant, was it targeted revenge for a previous incident at these specific villages, or was it just convenience - the villages were just close to the barracks?
4. What is the standard of professional psychological monitoring of US serving soldiers, if any, and what was the assessed psychological state of this particular soldier?
5. If the US Army in any capacity becomes aware of a US soldier is having difficulties coping with service (combat or otherwise) what options are there for a soldier to resign from the Army, if any?
6. Was the psychological state of this US soldier, the lack of psychological monitoring of him by the US Army and the lack of process to allow psychologically affected soliders to resign from the Army - contributing factors to these separate massacres?
Military attacks are typically pre-dawn, so his training has been effectively applied to these massacres. It seems to be very easy for a bad soldier to obtain the means and opportunity to commit a massacre.
* How can such atrocities be prevented?
* Can such atrocities be prevented at all - are there really rules in war? Doesn't the victor judge and rule what was a war crime?
* When does a model soldier, one that is exemplary, take on behaviour and attitudes of a bad soldier?
To become a US Army Staff Sergeant involves exemplary soldiering and rising through the non-commissioned ranks from Private, to Lance Corporal, to Corporal, to Sergeant, to Staff Sergeant.
In the US Army, Staff Sergeants are generally placed in charge of squads (30+ soldiers) , but can also act as platoon sergeants in the absence of a Sergeant First Class. So it is a responsible leadership position. This grade is normally achieved after 10 to 13 years in service.
When in battle, military training sanctions killing, survival sanctions killing, and it is only a few extrapolated justifications away from 'murder' if the rules are broken. It's like kill on green, stop on red. If you shoot on red suddenly your decorated soldier status is erased and you are a callous murderer - ostracised, condemned, criminalised. Sounds too simplistic? Well remotely, war may be clear cut reading as a civilian having never been there, but the first thing lost in war after truth is normality. Relativity replaces normality.
Normality is relative. It is a norm nurtured by culture. Civilian bahaviour is controlled and reinforced by the police and media. Military culture is out of sight out of mind. Military culture in training and in real warfare inculcates norms based on what works and based on a fundamental instinct for survival. Kill or be killed is a basic premise. In an abnormal context, aka war, military normality cannot be reconciled easily with civilian normality. Debriefing needs to take multiple phasing and case by case based, else post-war trauma becomes lifelong.
Atrocities committed by soldiers are more prevalent than many people recall. The following case also involves a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan.
In 2011: US Soldier Sentenced to Life in Prison for Afghan Atrocities
In November 2011, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was sentenced by a military panel in the U.S. state of Washington to life in prison for killing Afghan villagers for sport and cutting off their body parts as trophies. The case has raised questions about how the U.S. military handles misconduct.
It started as a probe into the use of hashish in a troubled platoon. What followed were grisly revelations of planned murders of Afghan villagers who had their fingers cut off and kept as trophies.
During the court martial, which spanned two weeks, the panel was shown grisly photos of severed fingers, and a corpse with its teeth pulled out.
Prosecutors argued Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was the ringleader who plotted to kill three Afghan villagers in a remote area of Kandahar province. Witnesses testified that grenades and other weapons were placed next to the dead to make the killings appear to be legitimate combat scenes.
Gibbs denied killing two of the villagers. A third, he said, had tried to attack him. In testimony, Gibbs said he cut off fingers to keep as trophies much as a hunter would remove and keep the antlers of a deer.
Platoon members testified Gibbs had disdain for Afghans, described them as “prehistoric” and called them savages who did not deserve to be helped. They also said he led a gang beating of one soldier for reporting the use of narcotics in the platoon.
The image of Gibbs as a hateful killer is not one that exists among many in his hometown of Billings in the U.S. state of Montana. Elementary school employee Mary Mattheis knew him as a child. She told VOA she remembers Gibbs as a well-behaved boy who came from a good family, and she now wonders what may have happened.
“He was always well-mannered and always a nice boy and very polite and kind, and I always remember him for that and always liked him, too. I felt quite disturbed that this would be happening. War is an awful thing, so I imagine he’s had his share of what they can do back there, too, in Afghanistan. I imagine he’s seen a lot, too, that’s maybe done things to him,” said Mattheis.
The killings were among the worst atrocities reported in the Afghan conflict.
The case has received little attention in the U.S. media - and some see that as a sign of war fatigue among Americans. Lawrence Korb was assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress research group.
“Americans want to focus on the problems we have at home. We’ve had the greatest economic downturn since the depression. Americans feel that these people don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them. They just want to basically get home and rebuild the United States rather than rebuilding these societies,” said Korb.
Korb believes the lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan overextended U.S. forces, especially the army where soldiers were subjected to multiple deployments.
“They took in people who shouldn’t have been in the military under normal circumstances, but particularly put into an atmosphere where it’s hard to tell friend from foe, who the good guys and who the bad guys are, what is the end game. You’re asking an awful lot of these young men and young women. So, to the extent that there have been these horrible crimes committed, I think we as a nation are partly to blame,” said Korb.
Gibbs is the highest ranking soldier to be convicted in the case, and there is no word from the army that any of his commanders have been investigated. The Pentagon leadership has been silent on why the rogue atmosphere in Gibbs’ platoon was allowed to go on - even after the father of one platoon member reported the troubles to several officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the home of Gibbs’ 5th Stryker Brigade.
Cases are pending against two other soldiers.'
Lest we forget.. US Army's My Lai Massacre against Vietnamese villagers on 16th March, 1968, almost exactly 44 years ago today!
This followed the lesser known Massacre at Hue throughout February 1968 by the Viet Cong, just weeks prior. During the months and years that followed the Battle of Hu (Tet Offensive), which began on January 31, 1968 and lasted a total of 28 days, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Hu containing 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes apparently buried alive.
“I find war detestable but those who praise it without participating in it even more so”
~ Romain Rolland
President Barack Obama is right to seek a diplomatic defusion to calm the "drums of war" over Iran.
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