Rolling Stone must feel cheated a little bit. They obviously spent months putting together what they thought was an exclusive article about an Army Stryker kill team in Afghanistan, complete with never-before-seen photos and even videos, and then Der Spiegel comes along and releases a story on the same kill team a week early, along with a few of the pictures. And Jeremy Morlock plead guilty in an Army courtmartial to the crimes, so the Army was already working through this unfortunate chapter.
That’s not to say that the article by Mark Boal, released Monday and due in the print magazine on Friday, isn’t worthwhile. The depiction of the Stryker team’s first kill, of 15 year-old Gul Madin, is particularly grisly. They just happened upon this kid in a field as they sought out subjects to execute.
He was a smooth-faced kid, about 15 years old. Not much younger than they were: Morlock was 21, Holmes was 19. His name, they would later learn, was Gul Mudin, a common name in Afghanistan. He was wearing a little cap and a Western-style green jacket. He held nothing in his hand that could be interpreted as a weapon, not even a shovel. The expression on his face was welcoming. “He was not a threat,” Morlock later confessed.
Morlock and Holmes called to him in Pashto as he walked toward them, ordering him to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.
The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall. Then Morlock tossed a grenade toward Mudin, using the wall as cover. As the grenade exploded, he and Holmes opened fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun.
Mudin buckled, went down face first onto the ground. His cap toppled off. A pool of blood congealed by his head.
The loud report of the guns echoed all around the sleepy farming village. The sound of such unexpected gunfire typically triggers an emergency response in other soldiers, sending them into full battle mode. Yet when the shots rang out, some soldiers didn’t seem especially alarmed, even when the radio began to squawk. It was Morlock, agitated, screaming that he had come under attack. On a nearby hill, Spc. Adam Winfield turned to his friend, Pfc. Ashton Moore, and explained that it probably wasn’t a real combat situation. It was more likely a staged killing, he said – a plan the guys had hatched to take out an unarmed Afghan without getting caught.
Der Spiegel tells this story as well, but with less detail. I think it’s the nonchalance of the rest of the platoon that gets me. This stuff was known and expected. Incidentally, this was the kid Morlock and Holmes posed with like a deer hunter would with his prey.
It took a whistleblower to bring down the kill team, but senior Army leadership knew from battlefield reports and complaints from the local population about their exploits. It took a long time for them to act. So while there’s some solace in the fact that these soldiers are being held accountable for their crimes and that the process began well before the articles were released, it’s not like the punishment was swift. And the unit commander continues to operate freely, despite what was occurring in his ranks. Only the lower-level troops have been arrested. In fact, the article intimates that the squad leader, Calvin Gibbs, who was generally the ringleader for a lot of this conduct, learned the behavior while working in the security detail for a top colonel named Harry Tunnell, who pushed his troops to relentlessly attack the enemy.
Rolling Stone released more photos than Der Spiegel did in their article, 18 in all. They also released two videos made by the kill team depicting their actions. Even if these were legitimate battlefield incidents, it’s highly unusual to make what amount to snuff films out of them.
I can only add these words from Rolling Stone colleague Matt Taibbi:
I remembered covering the campaign in 2008 and hearing Democratic aides talking about how Obama was going to dodge the “soft on defense” label by campaigning loudly for a “presence in Afghanistan.” I’m convinced to this day that the only reason we’re still in that country is because a bunch of Beltway nerds with masculinity issues like Rahm Emmanuel collectively decided that the Democrats need a war, too – a so-called “good war” they could use to throw Bush’s Iraq adventure into relief.
Then they dumped planeloads full of other peoples’ children over there to be killed or turned into monsters themselves. The unbelievable cynicism behind the political decision to keep that war going, I just don’t understand it. Anyway I would hope those photos and that story would wake people up, although who knows … it may be that American soldiers murdering 15-year-olds doesn’t rate as a story anymore. You wonder whether the “Running Girl” photo would have had the same effect on the current TV-sedated population.
It’s actually worse than that, because once this “good war” became complicated and confused, another “good war” in Libya magically popped up in its place.