Jeremy Morlock, an American soldier who confessed to murdering three Afghan civilians in 2009 and 2010, was sentenced Wednesday to 24 years in prison by a military judge. Four more soldiers face murder charges, and an additional seven are being held for lesser crimes. Some say the actions of Morlock and other members of his so-called “kill team” stand as a moral indictment of the war effort, but they have it backward. The U.S. government recognizes wanton killing of civilians as a war crime and responds accordingly. Had Morlock been working for the jihadists, he would be hailed as a hero.
Last week, the German news weekly Der Spiegel released a series of grisly images taken by “kill team” members of soldiers posing with corpses of their victims. Morlock is seen in one of the photos holding one of the corpses by the hair, smiling broadly. The accompanying story gives details of the killings, in which the team systematically murdered civilians then tried to make the deaths look like the result of legitimate operations. Der Spiegel claims to have 40,000 more “kill team” images left to publish.
The usual crowd of anti-war critics has been remarkably silent about the “kill team” pictures, perhaps because they are unwilling to subject President Obama to the same degree of condemnation that they heaped upon George W. Bush. When the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal broke in 2004, former Vice President Al Gore said that “what happened at that prison, it is now clear, is not the result of random acts of a few bad apples. It was the natural consequence of the Bush administration policy.” Democratic leaders such as Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Nancy Pelosi called on Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign, as did the New York Times and Boston Globe. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden also was part of that chorus, but Vice President Biden has been uncharacteristically mute on the broader ramifications of the actions of the “kill team.”
Seymour Hersh, writing online in the New Yorker, said that he believed that “these soldiers had come to accept the killing of civilians - recklessly, as payback, or just at random - as a facet of modern unconventional warfare. In other words, killing itself, whether in a firefight with the Taliban or in sport with innocent bystanders in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs, has become ordinary.” He concludes, “This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us.”
It may be true that the 12 men facing trial had been dehumanized to the point where hunting down innocent Afghans became a form of sport. But it is wrong to generalize from their aberrant behavior and indict the entire U.S. military or the Afghan war effort. These are not typical soldiers, and their actions were beyond the pale. Most troops serving overseas are not marauding killers but highly trained, competent and professional. This does not lend itself to splashy headlines or blistering commentary, but the “kill team” stands out precisely because of its uniqueness.
Since the Vietnam War, there has been a cottage industry of war-crimes reporting, sometimes true, other times exaggerated, often simply false. The 1968 My Lai massacre, which made Mr. Hersh’s career, was an earlier example of American soldiers committing war crimes and being punished for them. But anti-war activists and politicians exploited the tragedy for political gain and left the impression that randomly killing civilians was the norm for U.S. troops in South Vietnam. The expression “baby killers” entered the contemporary lexicon, and radicals spit on returning troops. It was one of the low points in American history.
But while the illegal actions of a few soldiers were used to discredit the entire war effort, the same critics ignored the systematic, policy-driven slaughter of innocents perpetrated by America’s enemies. In the South Vietnamese city of Hue, more than 5,000 civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered intentionally by communist forces during the Tet Offensive. But the tragedy at Hue became merely a footnote to the war. The anti-war left set about denying the event took place, and the mainstream media, so fixated on My Lai, gave the Hue massacre barely a mention.
Like the North Vietnamese communists, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terror groups have no problem killing innocents. Murdering civilians is central to their rules of engagement; it is their standard operating procedure. To them, it is a matter of pride; they will behead a helpless captive and upload a video of the killing to YouTube. What we call an atrocity they call a job well done.
James S. Robbins is author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” (Encounter Books, 2010) executive director of the American Security Council Foundation and senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times.