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Last May, in the small village of Qualaday in western Kandahar Province, a young Army lieutenant and his sergeants
met with several elders to discuss the recent killing of a local mullah. The desert heat was fierce, and the elders led the soldiers across their village to sit under the shade of nearby trees. Three days had passed since they were last there; during that interval the place appeared to have been abandoned. When they sat down, some of the soldiers removed their helmets, and a few elders their sandals and turbans. A freelance photographer was permitted to make an audio recording of the discussion. The lieutenant wanted to know where everyone had gone. One elder explained: People left because they were afraidAsk them, ‘Do they understand why we shot this dude?’ ” the lieutenant told his interpreter. During their last patrol to Qualaday, soldiers in the platoon had attacked Mullah Allah Dad with rifles and a fragmentation grenade that blew off the lower halves of his legs and badly disfigured his face. The soldiers claimed that Allah Dad was trying to throw a grenade at them. Two days after the killing, however, a company commander attended a council during which the district leader announced that people believed the incident had been staged and that the Americans had planted the grenade in order to justify a murder.
“Tell them it’s important that not only the people in this village know, but the people in surrounding villages know, that this guy was shot because he took an aggressive action against coalition forces,” the lieutenant told his interpreter. “We didn’t just [expletive] come over and just shoot him randomly. We don’t do that.”
Last month, in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., 22-year-old Jeremy Morlock confessed to participating in the premeditated murder of Mullah Allah Dad, as well as the murders of two other Afghan civilians. In exchange for his agreement to testify against four other soldiers charged in the crimes, including the supposed ringleader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the government reduced Morlock’s mandatory life sentence to 24 years, with the possibility of parole after approximately 8. The rest of the accused, who are still awaiting trial, contest the allegations against them.
The story that has been told so far — by Morlock in his confession and by various publications that relied heavily on the more sensational accusations from interviews hastily conducted by Army special agents in Afghanistan — is a fairly straightforward one: a sociopath joined the platoon and persuaded a handful of impressionable subordinates to join him in sport killing as opportunities arose. There may indeed be truth to this, though several soldiers in the platoon give a more complicated account. Certainly it’s a useful narrative, strategically and psychologically, for various parties trying to make sense of the murders — parents at a loss to explain their sons’ involvement and lawyers advocating their clients’ innocence and a military invested in a version of events that contains and cauterizes the problem.
On the day of Jeremy Morlock’s confession, I watched as several of his friends and relatives took the stand to vouch movingly for his character and struggle to fathom how the young man they knew could have committed the crimes to which he confessed. I watched, too, as Morlock himself recounted his failed ambition to follow in the footsteps of his father, a former master sergeant who died in a boating accident not long before Morlock deployed. “If he had been alive when I went to Afghanistan,” Morlock told the judge, “I know that would have made a difference. . . . I realize now that I wasn’t fully prepared for the reality of war as it was being fought in Afghanistan.”
Among the witnesses who testified that day was Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist who specializes in war crimes. Mestrovic was allowed to study an internal 500-page inquiry into the Fifth Stryker Brigade’s “command climate,” the purpose of which was to assess whether shortcomings in leadership might be partly to blame for the murders, and to identify any officers who should be held to account. In court, Mestrovic said he was shocked by how dysfunctional the brigade appeared to have been, and he added, “In a dysfunctional unit, we cannot predict who will be the deviant — but we can predict deviance.”
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