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 afraid.
“Ask 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.
By LUKE MOGELSON
Published: April 27, 2011
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.”
I met with Mestrovic later that evening and asked him to elaborate. Before becoming involved in Morlock’s case, he served as an expert witness at trials related to Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad canal killings and Operation Iron Triangle, a case with some similarities to this one, in which American soldiers in Iraq murdered three unarmed noncombatants. He excoriated the tendency of the Army — and the news media — to blame such crimes on “a few bad apples” or a “rogue platoon.” Close examination of these events, Mestrovic argued, invariably reveals that the simplistic bad-actor explanation “doesn’t fit the picture.”
Of course, while the murders in southern Afghanistan reflect most glaringly upon the men who committed them, the need to revisit these crimes goes beyond questions of culpability and motive in one platoon. As with Abu Ghraib and Haditha and My Lai, it’s hard not to consider how such acts also open a window onto the corroding conflicts themselves. This isn’t to suggest that military personnel are behaving similarly throughout Afghanistan as a result of the conditions there; it is only to say that 10 years into an unconventional war whose end does not appear imminent, the murder of civilians by troops that are supposed to be defending them might reveal more than the deviance of a few young soldiers in a combat zone.
Criminal allegations aside, the return of the Fifth Stryker Brigade to Joint Base Lewis-McChord last summer would still have been a somber one. During its year in Afghanistan, 35 soldiers were killed and around 230 wounded. The toll represents one of the highest casualty rates of any brigade deployment to the war. The Fifth Brigade, with roughly 4,000 soldiers, comprised seven battalions; each battalion had about four companies, each company about four platoons. While most of these units shifted continually among the southern provinces — from Kandahar to Helmand to Zabul — Third Platoon, Bravo Company, was from the outset stationed west of Kandahar, at a forward operating base called Ramrod.
The war was not what they expected. By September 2009, two months after their arrival, the soldiers of the Third Platoon were conducting two missions a day to villages and compounds scattered throughout an area of operations many felt was too vast for them to influence. “We went to the same town every few weeks,” one of the defendants, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, said through his lawyer in response to my written questions. “We did not seem to have any familiarity with the locals. The unit was always making empty promises on how often we would return. On top of that, there were I.E.D.’s everywhere.” Several members of the platoon said that the prevalence of improvised explosive devices and near absence of actual combatants engendered frustration. “A lot of guys felt gypped,” another soldier told me. “All the other units have these great stories about firefights, then here we are, we’re not getting anything. We had to sit there and just wait to get blown up.” (Three soldiers from the Third Platoon, on condition of anonymity, were willing to discuss their deployment and the crimes with me. It should be said that the allegiances and grievances that no doubt arose during their year in Afghanistan, and that can have only worsened during subsequent investigations and legal proceedings, might very well have created biases.)
In November, one of the vehicles in a Third Platoon convoy passed over a pressure-plate bomb that exploded directly underneath its driver, Sgt. Robert Samuel, breaking several of his bones and completely severing his left leg. Within the platoon, Samuel had been an extremely popular noncommissioned officer and squad leader, particularly among the younger soldiers. “Once that happened, it was kind of a big reality check,” the soldier quoted above told me. By this time, low morale had already led to widespread misconduct, and the majority of the Third Platoon (at least 15 soldiers, according to Army investigations) was getting stoned several times a week. “It’s commonplace,” the same soldier said; he added that no one was forced to submit to urine tests. “All the local nationals that work on the F.O.B., they all get high. All it takes is you trade them a porno mag, and they give you an ounce of hash.”
Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, the investigating officer who, in the wake of the murders, was assigned to conduct a command-climate inquiry into the Fifth Brigade, would later find that the Third Platoon “had significantly lower standards and discipline than other units.” In his report — the same one Mestrovic referred to, and which The New York Times has reviewed — Twitty writes that both the platoon leader, Lt. Roman Ligsay, and his noncommissioned counterpart, Sgt. First Class Julio Bruno, were regarded as “weak leaders, lacking confidence, self-serving, focusing on wanting to be liked by the soldiers so failing to enforce standards, and not engaged in the platoon’s daily activities.” The soldiers I spoke with agreed with this assessment.
Sgt. Samuel’s replacement was Calvin Gibbs, a physically imposing staff sergeant from Billings, Mont. At 25, Gibbs had already served two tours — one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan — and he quickly demonstrated tactical instincts that earned him the esteem of his seniors, who often placed him in the lead. His confidence and aggression made a strong impression on the other soldiers, especially those with little combat experience. “He’s the kind of guy, he would’ve been on the poster for GoArmy.com,” one soldier told me. “He’s what you want a soldier to look like, act like, speak like. He’s like the epitome of soldier.” Another said: “Gibbs was just a really personable guy. Easy to like, funny, in shape. He just had some sinister hobbies.”
Jeremy Morlock, a corporal at the time, would later tell investigators that a week or two after joining them at Ramrod, Gibbs began talking about “some of the stuff that he had gotten away with in Iraq.” As an example, Morlock said, Gibbs related having killed an Iraqi family driving in a car. (Gibbs has not been charged with any crime related to his service in Iraq. Army investigators failed to find any witnesses to this event; the medic attached to Gibbs’s old platoon said in a sworn statement that he had heard that Gibbs and others had fired on a swerving vehicle one night, killing a man, woman and child.) Not long after, Morlock further claims, Gibbs “tossed out this scenario” in which it would be possible to kill an unarmed Afghan in such a way that would make it appear to have been a legitimate engagement. During the deployment, according to Morlock, Gibbs had acquired several fragmentation grenades off the books. The “scenario” would involve shooting an Afghan, detonating one of the grenades and later explaining to superiors that the explosive had been thrown by the victim.
Morlock and another soldier accused of murder, Adam Winfield, have characterized Gibbs as a sociopath who orchestrated the killings, and Winfield further claims Gibbs used his rank as a noncommissioned officer to coerce him into participating. The “kill team” moniker, instantly and unanimously adopted by the news media, comes from a leaked video interview in which Winfield tells an Army special agent that Gibbs “thought I was weak and I’m not good enough to be on his quote-unquote ‘kill team.’ Then he asked me if I would be in.” Gibbs, from the beginning, has denied any wrongdoing.
There is an obvious incentive for Morlock and Winfield to advance this characterization. But the Third Platoon soldiers I spoke with paint a more complete picture. “Gibbs as this kind of Mansonesque kingpin is just completely out the window,” one of them said. Another said that one day during the deployment, Gibbs “showed me a bunch of his devices that he was going to use for some of the staged killings he planned on carrying out, kind of pitching me scenarios on how I could jump in and be a part of it.” He added: “I think at the end of the day what it boiled down to is these guys wanted some stories to tell when they got home. They weren’t getting the action they thought they deserved. So they went out and made their own action.”
The novelist Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran, has written that “in war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” Between January and June 2010, three Afghans were killed during three Third Platoon patrols — this we know. As for what exactly happened in La’l Muhammad Kalay, Kari Kheyl and Qualaday, accounts differ. Investigations have been impeded by the inaccessibility of any victim’s corpse and the logistical difficulty of traveling to each of the three villages. Consequently, proving anything with material evidence appears unlikely. Nonetheless, four young veterans face life sentences.
The purpose of the patrol to La’l Muhammad Kalay on Jan. 15 was for Lieutenant Ligsay and the company executive officer, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, to meet with village elders. While the officers convened with an elder in his private compound, the rest of the platoon fanned out to establish security. On the village’s periphery, Morlock took cover behind a low mud wall, where he monitored a group of local farmers tending a poppy field. The closest soldier to him was Specialist Ryan Mallett, who had settled in behind some rubble on a nearby hillside, giving him a clear view of his platoon-mates.
During pretrial hearings in a Lewis-McChord courtroom, Mallett would later testify that he watched Morlock call to one of the farmers and motion for him to approach. When the farmer — a beardless teenager in a colorful shirt, whose name was Gul Mudin — reached a distance of 10 to 20 feet, Morlock ordered him to stop. In the written “stipulation of fact” that he confessed to in March, Morlock states that during this time a soldier named Andrew Holmes was behind the wall beside him and that the two of them explicitly agreed to implement Gibbs’s “scenario” with a fragmentation grenade that Gibbs had given Morlock.
Holmes, a 20-year-old from Boise, Idaho, was Morlock’s direct subordinate and one of the few privates in the platoon. He enlisted in the Army the day after he turned 18 and celebrated his 19th birthday in Afghanistan. “As a new private, Holmes was very charismatic,” one soldier told me. “Not scared, didn’t stutter, didn’t make stupid blunders based on insecurity or overzealousness. He was a very calm, collected guy — knew what he was doing.”
Holmes, who has been charged with conspiring with Morlock and Gibbs to commit murder, denies having any knowledge of Morlock’s plan. He maintains that he did not join Morlock behind the wall until after Morlock stopped Mudin and that no discussion about murdering him ever took place. In court, Mallett corroborated that only when Mudin “got close” did Morlock yell for Holmes, who at that point was positioned 80 to 90 feet away. Once Holmes reached Morlock, according to Mallett’s testimony, the two soldiers shared “a brief exchange,” which lasted a couple of seconds, and none of which Mallett could hear. Holmes then moved to the corner of the wall and aimed his machine gun down an empty road.
Morlock says in his confession that before he dropped his grenade over the wall, he “prepped” it by removing its thumb safety, pin and spoon, and stuffed the parts in his pocket, so as not to leave any evidence that might later identify it as American. He says he then told Holmes “to get ready to fire.” Mallett testified, however, that he was watching Holmes look down the empty road when he heard Morlock yell: “Grenade! Grenade! Holmes, shoot!” Holmes stood up and got off a short burst of automatic fire, Mallett said, before Morlock grabbed him by his flak-jacket and pulled him down just before the grenade detonated.
Another soldier I spoke with remembered things somewhat differently. Claiming he was on “an elevated position” about 30 feet behind Morlock, this soldier said that before Morlock called for Holmes, “Morlock was fumbling around with something in his hands. I couldn’t really make out what it was at the time. He looked back over, called Holmes up to him. Once Holmes got to about maybe 10 or 15 feet from Morlock’s position, as he’s walking up, Morlock with his right hand kind of made a shot-put motion over the little wall. As soon as he did that, he yelled out: ‘Contact! Contact! Contact!’ and gave Holmes a direct order to initiate fire.”
It is unclear whether Holmes’s bullets hit Mudin. Mallett says he saw the rounds strike the outer wall of a nearby compound, and that Mudin was still standing during the short interlude between Holmes’s gunfire and the explosion. A second soldier I spoke with, also claiming he witnessed the event, told me: “Holmes was pretty shellshocked. He obviously wasn’t aware that there was a grenade.”
Upon hearing the blast, the officers and the sergeants in the village elder’s compound rushed downhill to the mud wall, where Morlock reported that Mudin had thrown the grenade at him and Holmes. Mudin was lying in a pool of blood; his eyes were glazed over; he did not appear to be breathing. Nevertheless, Captain Mitchell instructed one of his staff sergeants, Kris Sprague, to “make sure he’s dead,” and from a short remove, Sprague shot Mudin once in the shoulder. (Mitchell claims this was not the intention of his order; he said he wanted Sprague to check the body for signs of life.)
As it happened, it was Calvin Gibbs who, along with the platoon medic Specialist Alexander Christy, entered Mudin’s biometrics into the digital database used by the military to keep track of Afghan nationals. Christy would later tell Army special agents that Gibbs approached him previously and asked for a set of trauma shears, the heavy-duty scissors medics use to cut through uniforms and bootlaces. As Gibbs scanned Mudin’s fingerprints and irises, according to a sworn statement Christy provided the agents, Gibbs brought out the shears, glanced around and “began to cut off the pinky finger.” While Christy would end up clarifying that he had not actually seen Gibbs cut it off, agents searching F.O.B. Ramrod did discover two fingers, each wrapped in cloth, hidden near the Third Platoon’s living area.
Two pictures that were taken at La’l Muhammad Kalay at the end of the patrol — one of Morlock and one of Holmes, each kneeling over Mudin’s nearly stripped corpse, grabbing a fistful of hair to lift his bloodied face upward — have since been widely disseminated, drawing comparisons to Abu Ghraib and prompting the Army to denounce them as “repugnant to us as human beings.” Morlock smiles widely; Holmes, cigarette in hand, appears uneasy. “He was ordered to be in the picture,” one of the soldiers who witnessed the killing told me. I asked him why. “We’re infantry,” he said. “Obviously, you want to get in combat. If someone tries to kill you, you’re supposed to kill them back. It’s called a ‘made man.’ You pulled your weight. That’s why Holmes was told to get in the picture.”
In a 2006 mental-health survey, 55 percent of marines and 40 percent of soldiers serving in Iraq said they would report the injuring or killing of an innocent noncombatant, and about 10 percent admitted they had mistreated civilians themselves, either by destroying their private property or physically assaulting them. “This survey should spur reflection on our conduct in combat,” Gen. David H. Petraeus said in a letter to the troops. “We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. . . . What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave.” The following year, the number of soldiers who reported having mistreated civilians grew; subsequent surveys omitted “items that could potentially be incriminating,” according to the colonel who led them, and didn’t include any questions about unethical behavior.
A number of soldiers in the Third Platoon seem to have been vaguely aware of the possibility of foul play in the killing of Gul Mudin. But the ubiquitous portrayal of a “kill team” murdering with impunity might be exaggerated. “Probably about a month afterward,” one of the soldiers told me, “the majority of the platoon had figured out one way or another what had really happened.” Most disapproved — Holmes, some say, especially. “He was really rocked,” another soldier said. “He was terrified by the notion that this had been orchestrated and he’d essentially been used.”
Even those who condemned the murder, and the prospect of future ones, chose not to alert their superiors. “See no evil, hear no evil: that’s the mentality,” said the soldier quoted directly above. “It’s a horrible mind-set, I understand that. It’s not going to translate well in the media. But we just didn’t care. There’s no excuse for it. . . . But that was Afghanistan. If it happened, you’re like: ‘Hmm, how ’bout that? That’s [expletive] crazy.’ You give your opinion — either that’s stupid or that’s not stupid — and then you go back to the gym, or you go get yourself some damn food, or you watch TV on your laptop.”
A month after Mudin was killed, one member of the Third Platoon did try to blow the whistle. As a high-schooler in Cape Coral, Fla., Specialist Adam Winfield was an avid consumer of American history. When he was 17, he brought a recruiter home; eventually, he obtained his parents’ consent to join the Army, which he did as an infantryman, despite scoring high enough on his entry exam to qualify for any number of less-hazardous specialties. He completed his first four-year contract right after his unit was mobilized for its deployment, then opted to re-enlist. He wanted to become an officer and was accepted into Washington State University. While home on leave in late October, Winfield filled out enrollment paperwork, intending to begin classes at the end of his tour.
By the time Winfield returned to F.O.B. Ramrod from his furlough, Staff Sergeant Gibbs had joined the platoon. Winfield’s father, Christopher, a former Marine, says his son’s correspondence became noticeably apprehensive, “like he was in a dark place, like he was depressed.” Then, on Feb. 14, Winfield wrote his father a Facebook message that included the following: “There are people in my platoon . . . can get away with ‘murder’ and they get nothing but praise from squad leaders. Then a rumor floated around the platoon that I was going to rat out said individuals for what they have done. Now I’m at a crossroads. Should I do the right thing and put myself in danger for it? Or just shut up and deal with it because I’m a quitter?”
Later that night, Christopher Winfield was able to connect with his son on instant messenger, at which point Adam told him about the death of Gul Mudin, and added: “Pretty much the whole platoon knows about it, it’s O.K. with all of them pretty much. Except me. I want to do something about it. The only problem is I don’t feel safe here telling anyone.”
Winfield asked his father to contact the Army inspector general and tell him what happened. Christopher says he called the 24-hour hotline and left a message. He called the Florida senator Bill Nelson and left a message. (Nelson’s office denies receiving the call.) He called the headquarters for Army Criminal Investigation Command and left a message. He called the operator at Lewis-McChord and left a message. He called the chaplain’s office and left a message. Finally, with his son still online, he got through to the base’s Installation Operations Center, where the NCO on duty, Staff Sgt. James Beck, heard him out, commiserated with his situation and regretted that there was little he could do. While Christopher was still on the phone, Adam messaged him, “I have proof that they are planning another one in the form of an AK-47 they want to drop on a guy.” Christopher says he relayed this information to Beck, who suggested he advise Adam to direct his allegations to his chain of command.
A recent Army investigation into its response to Christopher Winfield’s allegations, reviewed by The Times, reveals that Beck did not tell anyone else about the call; neither did he enter it into the Operation Center’s daily staff duty log. “It is clear that SSG Beck exhibited an egregious error in judgment,” the investigating officer summarizes. None of the other authorities Christopher left messages with called him back, and his conclusion was that Adam was on his own. He told his son to lie low and try to stay away from Gibbs.
On Feb. 22, one week after Christopher Winfield spoke with Beck, the Third Platoon visited the village of Kari Kheyl. The objective of the day’s mission, Operation Kodak Moment, was to photograph every resident and document where they lived. While Lieutenant Ligsay consulted with elders, Morlock says in his written confession that he and Gibbs encountered a villager and agreed to implement one of their scenarios using an AK-47 that Gibbs had brought along in his assault pack. Morlock also claims that they enlisted a third soldier, Specialist Michael Wagnon II, who now also faces murder charges.
At 29, Wagnon was older than most in the platoon. He generally kept to himself and is one of the few junior enlisted soldiers not implicated in any drug use. He was also one of the platoon’s only junior enlisted men to have been deployed before, with two tours in Iraq. Those who served with him have invariably called Wagnon “a good soldier,” “honest” and “a family man.” (It has been reported elsewhere that Wagnon kept as a trophy a skull fragment from another Afghan civilian. During pretrial hearings, however, witnesses testified that what Wagnon had was probably a piece of jawbone from a camel that was killed by an I.E.D.)
In his written confession, Morlock says that Gibbs asked him and Wagnon whether they were willing to participate in murdering the villager, and Wagnon replied: “This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m in.” He says that he and Wagnon covered the man, whose name was Marach Agha, while Gibbs brought out the AK-47, fired several rounds into the wall of the compound and then used his own rifle to shoot Agha repeatedly, discarding the AK-47 on the ground near where he fell. Morlock says that at this point, he and Wagnon fired their weapons in the dead man’s general direction. “This part was Gibbs’s entire plan, and makes the story more concrete and more believable,” Morlock explained to special agents last May. “And lets Gibbs know that we were on board and not a threat to him.”
Wagnon and his lawyer say that not only was Wagnon unaware of any conspiracy to commit a crime, he wasn’t even near Gibbs when he shot Agha. As with the event at La’l Muhammad Kalay, the only third-party witness to take the stand during pretrial hearings was Specialist Ryan Mallett, and the testimony he provided seems indeed to corroborate Wagnon’s claim. In court, Mallett said that he was 65 to 100 feet away from Wagnon when the distinct sound of AK-47 fire came from the opposite side of a compound.
One soldier I spoke with who did not testify also told me that Wagnon was not with Gibbs or Morlock when the shooting started. “There’s any number of people that were around him,” the soldier said. “But everybody’s terrified — you know, the sensationalism and being told not to talk about anything.” He added: “Morlock was far, far behind Wagnon. Anyone can attest, he was never near him. They didn’t have any conversation or anything like that. And Gibbs most certainly didn’t have any conversation with Wagnon, or was around him in that vicinity.”
Upon hearing shots, Mallett and the other soldier say, Wagnon turned and ran down an alley, toward the gunfire. Wagnon’s lawyer allows that his client, assuming the victim was an enemy combatant, did fire his weapon when he reached the scene. “I found that Gibbs was exposed and was firing,” Wagnon, who was in military confinement for ten months, said in response to written questions. “When I came around the corner, I saw Gibbs’s burst. When I saw the Afghan man, he was either falling or trying to get up, and his hand was reaching for the AK-47.” To the question “What was going through your mind?” Wagnon responded, “That the Afghan man was trying to kill my squad leader and that Staff Sergeant Gibbs was in danger.”
Once again, Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague hurried to the action with Lieutenant Ligsay. This time they found Agha lying next to the AK-47, still breathing. Gibbs told them that Agha shot at him but that his weapon jammed, enabling Gibbs to return fire. About a minute later, Agha died. Lieutenant Ligsay moved the body to the center of the village, where Agha’s cousin and father-in-law identified him. When Ligsay asked why Agha would want to attack Americans, the men answered that he was a religious man who did not know how to shoot an AK-47. “I repeatedly asked them both why he would have a weapon,” Ligsay later told Army special agents. “We showed them the AK-47, and they did not know where he got it from.”
One of the earliest investigations into U.S. war crimes took place in 1902, when a Senate committee agreed to examine mounting allegations of misconduct in the Philippine-American War. The conflict cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and though many of these deaths were from disease, veterans testified at Congressional hearings about rampant brutality by American soldiers. Years later, the ongoing violence in the Philippines would inspire a young George C. Marshall, on his first assignment fresh out of military school, to tell a fellow officer: “Once an army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”
After interviewing 80 witnesses for his command-climate inquiry, General Twitty recommended that Roman Ligsay — who after the deployment was promoted to captain — and his enlisted counterpart, Sgt. First Class Julio Bruno, both receive letters of reprimand (Ligsay for an excessive-force incident that did not result in criminal charges, and Bruno for failing to enforce standards in the platoon), and that Capt. Matthew Quiggle, their immediate superior, receive two letters of concern, a milder action. Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who appointed Twitty, also recommended a letter of admonition, which falls between “reprimand” and “concern,” for Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, the former commander of the Fifth Brigade.
In explaining his recommendations, Twitty returns more than once to the difference between causing criminal behavior and failing to prevent it. “While the alleged criminal acts may have been identified earlier or perhaps prevented with stronger leader presence,” he writes, “I found nothing to indicate that the alleged criminal acts occurred as a result of the command climate set by the leaders above them.” No one in a leadership position, from Tunnell down to Ligsay, is responsible for the crimes of the Third Platoon, according to Twitty. At the same time, under different leadership, the crimes might never have happened.
Twitty acknowledges that “the platoon’s standards and discipline were so alarming that one might question how the company and battalion levels of command did not know of many of the incidents that occurred within the platoon.” But he then goes on to explain, “Upon further investigation, one would find that many of the incidents were not reported above platoon level.”
To some, this may sound like a whitewash. Indeed, the plausible deniability of the field-grade officer is an American military tradition that dates back at least to Vietnam. But Twitty’s investigation makes no attempt to minimize the role of Colonel Tunnell, the brigade commander.
Even before deploying to Afghanistan, Tunnell had acquired a reputation as a controversial leader and had been sharply criticized by several colonels and generals for championing aggressive tactics that are now out of sync with current Army doctrine. Army Times and The Washington Post both published articles questioning Tunnell’s leadership long before General Twitty conducted his investigation.
In March 2003, Tunnell commanded an airborne infantry battalion that dropped into northern Iraq and commenced a year of hard fighting in and around Kirkuk. In October, when his patrol was ambushed, Tunnell was shot in the leg and had to be airlifted to Germany. While convalescing in the U.S., Tunnell wrote a paper about his tour in Iraq that concluded, “It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her point of view — they simply must be attacked relentlessly.” A few years later, Tunnell was assigned to review a draft of a new Army field manual premised on a philosophy antithetical to his own. The manual — “Counterinsurgency,” by Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. James F. Amos — was published in December 2006 and has since radically altered how the American military operates in Iraq and Afghanistan. The following spring, Tunnell assumed command of what was then the newly created Fifth Stryker Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Neither Twitty nor anyone else has accused Tunnell of illegal activity. In his own written statement to Twitty, Tunnell is remarkably frank about his disdain for counterinsurgency (COIN). His primary objection to the doctrine is that it cannot be effectively implemented because U.S. Army forces “are not organized, trained or equipped” to carry out the peaceful development work that counterinsurgency demands of them. He also argues that Americans are not “culturally suited” for such work.
According to Twitty, Tunnell’s fervent repudiation of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan created “frustration and confusion” among lower-level commanders, who believed his orders contradicted the fundamental strategy of the war. One lieutenant colonel writes in the statement he submitted for Twitty’s report: “Stories of his negative reactions to this generally accepted truth about how the Army operated were legend. . . . We knew instinctively that we would have to do some of the things that Colonel Tunnell didn’t want to see — such as work to improve local government institutions — so we set about preparing to do so in semisecret.”
Because lower-ranking officers adhered to counterinsurgency independently, Twitty concludes, the bellicose philosophy espoused by Tunnell was never actually put into practice. The general finds that “at the platoon level and below, Colonel Tunnell’s . . . philosophy had minimal impact on the soldiers.” However poorly Colonel Tunnell led the Fifth Brigade, however dysfunctional its command climate might have been as a result, and however vocally he prioritized killing over counterinsurgency, there can be “no causal relation,” according to Twitty, between these failures and faults and anything an individual soldier might or might not have done.
Mestrovic, the war-crimes expert who testified at Morlock’s court-martial, adamantly disagrees. He argues that the ramifications of Tunnell’s leadership would have been complicated, subtle and far-reaching. Mestrovic rejects the notion that members of the Third Platoon would have been unaffected by Tunnell’s views. “For a society to be functional, the beliefs and norms must have synchronicity,” Mestrovic explained to me. “Tunnell was out of sync with the general norm. To put that in practical terms, people like Jeremy [Morlock], on the very bottom of the food chain, would think things like, Anybody who believes in COIN is just a [vulgarity]. And they admired Tunnell. To this day, Jeremy admires Tunnell.”
Specialist Adam Winfield’s parents say that after Kari Kehyl, their son sank into a severe depression. Rumors that he was considering snitching, according to the Winfields, led to his being ostracized by the rest of the platoon. A key element of Winfield’s defense is that Gibbs relentlessly threatened and antagonized him. Gibbs denies threatening Winfield, and the three soldiers I spoke with all say that allegations of intimidation are unfounded. Other soldiers told investigators that Winfield had indeed been threatened, and Christopher Winfield told me that by March, “Adam was at such a point mentality-wise that he was hoping he would step on a mine. He was hoping he’d get blown up and just end this mess.”
On May 2, during the mission to the small village of Qualaday, Winfield was told he would be going in with Gibbs. While First Lt. Stefan Moye met with a local resident, Gibbs led a team on a search of the surrounding area. (By this time, Ligsay had been transferred to a staff position at headquarters.) Shortly after separating from the rest of the platoon, Winfield and Morlock both claim, they found an unarmed man inside a compound. Gibbs asked them if they wanted to kill him, and they agreed.
The man, Mullah Allah Dad, was brought outside, where, Winfield told investigators, “Sergeant Gibbs said: ‘Just put him down in that ditch right there. Put him on his knees.’ ” Winfield and Morlock both claim that after Allah Dad was lowered to his knees, they took cover behind a sand berm about 15 feet away. Winfield and Morlock say Gibbs activated an American fragmentation grenade and tossed it at Allah Dad’s feet. In his confession, Morlock says that as he did so, Gibbs yelled: “Kill him! Kill him!” During his initial questioning, Winfield remembered Morlock giving the order to shoot before the grenade detonated.
Morlock and Winfield both admit firing their rifles. Winfield, whose lawyer now claims he deliberately aimed high, told Army special agents: “I took a man from his family. I don’t know if it was my bullets that killed him or the grenade that killed him. But I was a part of it.” Christopher Winfield, who has had many conversations with his son about this moment, told me: “Fear set in for him. He said he was having a huge anxiety attack. He couldn’t feel his fingers. He couldn’t feel his feet. He panicked . . . almost passed out.” Christopher said that for a moment, while trying to decide what to do, his son even considered shooting Gibbs.
Winfield and Morlock both say that after the explosion, Gibbs walked up to Allah Dad and shot him in the head. Morlock says he himself then ran over and planted a Russian-style grenade next to Allah Dad. According to Winfield, it was Gibbs who planted the grenade.
The platoon medic later described finding “an elderly man facedown with both of his legs almost completely amputated, his jaw crushed and several gunshot wounds.” He also told investigators that he watched Gibbs pull one of Allah Dad’s teeth, using his fingers. “It kind of just peeled out, because his face was so messed up.”
Minutes after the explosion, Allah Dad’s wife appeared and became hysterical. “I’ve never seen anybody in my life more upset than her,” the soldier who was ordered to keep her away from the body told me. “It looked like the worst thing ever in the world had just happened to her a thousand times over. She was screaming, crying. She had a baby 2-year-old kid. She was holding it, and then her son, who was maybe not even 5, was in tow behind her. I had to move her. She kept trying to come back. I escorted her about 75 meters away, and she just walked off.”
Later, Adam Winfield said during his videotaped interview, Gibbs told him he was a made man.
In 1971, when Lt. William Calley Jr., who had led his platoon in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women, children and the elderly in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, was found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, public outrage erupted across the country. Thousands of telegrams advocating clemency were sent to the White House, mass protests were held nationwide, a popular folk song was written and Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, instituted American Fighting Man’s Day in solidarity with the convicted war criminal. President Nixon immediately ordered Calley released to house arrest, just three and a half years of which he would serve before being freed entirely by a federal judge. Aubrey Daniel, the Army lawyer who prosecuted Calley, and who wrote a letter of protest rebuking Nixon for his involvement, would later say of the reaction: “It was a country that wanted this war to end and a country that didn’t want to believe that this had happened. But if it did, it wanted to say that it’s our fault collectively, and not his fault.”
Such a sense of collective responsibility does not seem to be shared by the generation that has grown up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that has read about such wartime atrocities as the gang rape, murder and immolation of a 14-year-old girl near al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq; the killing of women and children in Haditha; the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib; and the executions of Iraqis in a Baghdad canal and of the three men in the Iron Triangle. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any significant mobilization of support for the American soldiers and marines charged with these crimes, much less a public outcry that would persuade elected officials to intervene on their behalf.
If we lack a sense of collective responsibility for these more recent war crimes, Mestrovic blames this on our readiness to believe that such occasional iniquities are aberrations perpetrated by a derelict few, rather than the inevitable result of institutional failures and, more generally, the nature of the conflicts in which we are engaged. It is much easier to accept the assessment of the officer who told General Twitty that the Fifth Brigade had “absolutely the worst command climate I have ever operated under” but that nonetheless “nothing about the unit climate led to the killings . . . that was simply the work of a sociopath.”
Whether or not it’s appropriate to hold Tunnell in some way accountable for the crimes supposedly committed by Gibbs, there are parallels between them. Both fought in northern Iraq in the early part of the invasion, and both seem to have brought those experiences with them, years later, when they were sent to a very different kind of war. (Tunnell’s critics have pointed out that Gibbs was assigned to Tunnell’s security detachment before joining the Third Platoon.) Another colonel wrote in his statement to General Twitty that Tunnell told him that “he was after revenge for being shot in the leg while serving in Iraq” and that he kept the metal rod from his leg on his desk to “use it as an illustration.” If the violence in Kirkuk in 2003 instilled in the mature, highly educated Tunnell a desire for vengeance and reservations about the guidance from his own chain of command, what might it have done to Calvin Gibbs, then a 19-year-old machine-gunner fighting in the same city?
Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and a former senior adviser to the Defense Department, told me that while extensive research has been done on the psychological effects of deployments for veterans trying to reintegrate into society, the Army has so far failed to examine how those same effects influence soldiers when they return to war. “What’s it like for the guy who’s now on his fourth combat tour, and how effective is he?” Xenakis asked me. “And does he have other problems? I don’t know that the system, either from the leadership standpoint — the combat-effectiveness standpoint — or the medical side, is asking that.”
Studies show that over the course of our military history, American soldiers have become increasingly more willing to kill. In World War II, just 15 to 20 percent of infantrymen actually fired their rifles at the enemy during battles; in Korea that number increased to 55 percent; in Vietnam it reached 90. Retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of the book “On Killing,” attributes the trend to changes in military training. The “methods that increased the firing rate from 15 percent to 90 percent,” Grossman writes, “are referred to as ‘programming’ or ‘conditioning’ ” intended to address — or redress — “the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.”
Xenakis perceives a disconnect between this type of training and the less violent aspirations of counterinsurgency. He says the doctrine is “a great theoretical idea” but that the training of the soldiers who are expected to implement it — infantrymen — has not caught up. “And I think it hasn’t caught up to understanding the mind-set of these young kids,” Xenakis added. “I even see it when I sit down with the squad leaders and the platoon sergeants. They’re in the war-fighter mentality. They’re gung-ho. They’ve got to have combat skills, there’s no doubt about it. It’s what’s going to save them. But I don’t think it’s set up in a way that also teaches them what they have to know for the COIN doctrine.”
Military lawyers say that legal actions for supposed crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan spiked after Abu Ghraib. Commanders, wary of being accused of turning a blind eye to misconduct, became far more likely to recommend investigations; investigators, subject to similar concerns, became far more likely to recommend criminal charges. In some cases, defense lawyers say, such a climate resulted in overzealous prosecutions of honorable men doing the best they could in unconventional, complicated wars.
At the same time, it seems safe to say, cases like the pending courts-martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord afford only glimpses of the horrors those wars can sometimes occasion.
Among the dozens of sworn statements in General Twitty’s report, one includes additional allegations that were never investigated, never prosecuted, never the subject of national magazine articles and the evening news. The statement of Maj. Ryan O’Connor, an officer in a battalion in the Fifth Brigade, stationed far away from Ramrod and Sergeant Gibbs, appears toward the end of Twitty’s report. It is never elaborated on, and its reliability is impossible to ascertain. “Around April 2010,” O’Connor writes in an abrupt departure from the matter at hand, “two different platoons . . . had direct fire contact which appeared to both the S3 and me to need further investigation.” O’Connor describes one incident in which an Afghan suspected of being a triggerman was shot while running from the scene of an I.E.D. explosion. “There was no cellphone or weapons found on the killed individual,” O’Connor writes, and he recommended that the battalion commander open an investigation. The commander declined, saying he had reviewed the reports and found it unnecessary.
A few days later, soldiers from another platoon shot and killed three more men. In their report, the soldiers claimed that they had been fired upon and had later discovered weapons, ammunition and I.E.D. parts. The I.E.D. parts turned out to be “some old AA batteries and a couple strands of electronic wire. The ammunition was old, discarded brass. These items amounted to no more than the average Afghan pocket litter,” O’Connor writes. More troubling, photos of the bodies appeared to him to indicate that two of the men took bullets to the head while the third was shot in the back. “The scenario that jumped immediately into my head was 2x simultaneous head shots, and the third guy took off running and so the shooting had to catch up to him.” O’Connor also found “inconsistencies” in the various reports describing the incident. “Something was not right,” he says.
Once again, O’Connor and his fellow officer took their concerns to their commander, “insisting that he initiate an investigation.” The commander’s superior instructed him to conduct an inquiry in-house, without alerting any authorities outside the unit. O’Connor says he and the officer exhorted the battalion commander to request an investigator, and that still the commander refused. “He said he did not want anyone from outside . . . coming here and poking around,” O’Connor writes, “because they don’t understand . . . and they won’t have any idea or context for ‘the kind of fight we’ve had here.’ ”
When he came home on leave last April, a few weeks before becoming the subject of an investigation, Andrew Holmes alarmed his mother, Dana, by giving away all of his belongings, including his most prized possession: a set of custom-made golf clubs he’d saved up to buy himself in high school. Dana says he was convinced he would be killed. Now Holmes’s family members try to see him once a month at Lewis-McChord, where he has been detained since his return from Afghanistan. On a recent visit, Dana says, her son told her that his time in pretrial confinement has made him “grateful that he came back, at least.” She says, “He said he’d rather be judged by eight than carried by six.”
While Jeremy Morlock was home on leave at the same time, his girlfriend became pregnant, and they now have a 5-month-old girl.
Adam Winfield’s lawyer reports Winfield is having suicidal thoughts. “He’s not the same kid,” Christopher Winfield told me recently. “He’s my son, but he’s not the same kid that left.”
Recently Michael Wagnon was released from pretrial confinement. He must wear an ankle monitor, but he will be able to live with his wife and three children.
As for the families of the three slain men in Afghanistan — Gul Mudin, Mullah Allah Dad and Marach Agha — they reportedly each received $11,300.
Luke Mogelson ([email protected]) is a freelance writer who has written, most recently, about prison reform for Washington Monthly. Editor: Joel Lovell ([email protected]).