Such hatred! - Jeff Sparrow - Tuesday, April 05, 2011

In 2010, Jeremy Morlock and Andrew Holmes, two US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, set out to kill a civilian, for no other reason than that they could. The latest edition of Rolling Stone magazine documents the activities of Morlock and Holmes and the so-called ‘Kill Team’ they led, activities that culminated in the murder of a young farmer named Gul Mudin.

The story is shocking. But, depressingly, much of it is also very familiar. Consider, for instance, a brief video taken by the soldiers, documenting an airstrike on two suspected insurgents. Like Wikileaks’ ‘Collateral Murder’ video, the soundtrack records the unabashed pleasure the men take in watching the Afghanis die.

The soldiers subsequently edited the clip for distribution, sexing up the footage with a rock soundtrack and a title card reading ‘Death Zone’. Throughout the internet, there’s a flourishing genre of such home-made combat films. As far back as 2005, the Pentagon denounced the proliferation of clips in which real deaths had been overdubbed with heavy metal or hip hop, on the basis that, as the New York Sun rather diplomatically put it, ‘they could be regarded as anti-Arab’.

Another clip from the Rolling Stone story shows soldiers gunning down two armed Afghan men riding a motorbike. After the shooting, the men gather round the corpses. ‘I want to look at my kill,’ says one, and all the soldiers pull out cameras and begin snapping. That photographic enthusiasm produced a cache that Rolling Stone’s Mark Boal describes: a grotesque image gallery of severed heads, mutilated torsos and other body parts, sometimes adorned with props.

Boal argues that the photos from the Kill Team’s Third Platoon exemplified a culture of hostility toward, and contempt for, the people of Afghanistan. ‘Most people within the unit disliked the Afghan people, whether it was the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army or locals,’ one soldier explained to investigators. ‘Everyone would say they’re savages.’

That was the context in which Morlock and Holmes embarked on their thrill-killings. And that was the also context in which no-one tried to stop them. The military trains soldiers to kill; killing entails dehumanisation. But in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s very easy for that dehumanisation to take on an explicitly racial dynamic.

Authorities might talk about the need to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the context of an occupation there’s a countervailing pressure to discourage soldiers from empathising with the locals they police.

As it happens, the soldiers from the Third Platoon ‘Kill Team’ are, in fact, in trouble, with five soldiers charged with murder. Yet Rolling Stone describes an army desperately scrambling to portray those involved as ‘bad apples’ even though murders of civilians were allegedly ‘common knowledge’ among the unit. No officers have been charged – indeed, some have been promoted – despite allegations they knew about the killings from the beginning.

Conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan require very young men to police a population that’s largely hostile to their presence. The dynamic between occupiers and occupied facilitates a racial antipathy, such that some of those young men will inevitably do terrible things.

Yes, individual perpetrators must be held accountable for their crimes. But should we not also be asking questions about the character of wars that foster such a tremendous hatred toward the civilian population in whose name we are supposedly fighting?

The writer is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of Killing: Misadventures in Violence.


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