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Army Specialist Pleads Guilty to Murdering Afghan Civilians for Sport

Jeremy Morlock, part of the Army Stryker “kill team” in Afghanistan, plead guilty today to killing three Afghan civilians in an Army court-martial case. Photos of Morlock and his colleagues posing with Afghan corpses were published in the German magazine Der Spiegel this week, stirring controversy about abuse, torture and defilement carried out by enlisted men and women during the occupation.

“The plan was to kill people, sir,” the soldier, Specialist Jeremy N. Morlock, told a military judge at this base south of Seattle.

Specialist Morlock, one of five soldiers accused of killing the Afghans near Kandahar last year, had previously agreed in court documents to testify against the other defendants in exchange for his plea. He is seeking a maximum of 24 years in prison. A military judge still must approve the agreement.

Specialist Morlock, 22, of Wasilla, Alaska, is the first of the five soldiers to face a court-martial. He pleaded guilty on Wednesday to three charges of premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit murder, assault and other charges.

Morlock said that his team faked combat situations so they could kill Afghan civilians, largely for sport. He specifically cited Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs as the ringleader of the kill team. Gibbs has maintained his innocence and said that all Afghan deaths resulted from combat situations. The pictures tell a different story, however.

Morlock, who has agreed to testify against other defendants, is trying to secure a plea bargain of no more than 24 years in prison.

Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker wrote about the kill team photographs yesterday.

Why photograph atrocities? And why pass them around to buddies back home or fellow soldiers in other units? How could the soldiers’ sense of what is unacceptable be so lost? No outsider can have a complete answer to such a question. As someone who has been writing about war crimes since My Lai, though, I have come to have a personal belief: 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. In long, unsuccessful wars, in which the enemy—the people trying to kill you—do not wear uniforms and are seldom seen, soldiers can lose their bearings, moral and otherwise. The consequences of that lost bearing can be hideous. This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us. The G.I.s in Afghanistan were responsible for their actions, of course. But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.

The Der Spiegel photographs also help to explain why the American war in Afghanistan can probably never be “won,” in my view, just as we did not win in Vietnam. Terrible things happen in war, and terrible things are happening every day in Afghanistan, as Americans continue to conduct nightly assassination raids and have escalated the number of bombing sorties. There are also reports of suspected Taliban sympathizers we turn over to Afghan police and soldiers being tortured or worse. This will be a long haul; revenge in Afghan society does not have to come immediately. We could end up not knowing who hit us, or why, a decade or two from now.

It is unclear whether this sorry episode will have any impact on the nation’s future endeavors in Afghanistan. But it’s worth noting that even some Blue Dogs have turned against the war.

UPDATE: Morlock was sentenced to 24 years.

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David Dayen

David Dayen