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American Soldiers Committing Atrocities: Placing the Blame Where It Belongs

| April 22, 2012

The Pentagon's propaganda machinery is reliably well-oiled. U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Isaiah Schult, a 20-year-old Indianapolis native and improvised explosive device dog handler, jokes with Afghan children in November. (Centcom)

When the Los Angeles Times published photographs of American soldiers posing with corpses and body parts of Afghan insurgents this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta apologized and did what men in high places do when confronted with lowly acts of men in their charge. He released a statement. The soldiers’ behavior “absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values,” Panetta said. “This is not who we are…. If rules and regulations were found to have been violated, then those individuals will be held accountable.”

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Panetta should be a very effective spokesman for the virtues of recycling by now. It’s pretty much the same statement he trotted out when a video of U.S. Marines urinating on insurgents began circulating in January. Or when he asked the Marines in mid-February to look into evidence of soldiers posing with a Nazi SS flag. Or, later that month, when the American occupiers threw piles of Korans in burning trash, triggering weeks of deadly riots. Or when, in March, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales went around from home to home, cold-bloodedly murdering 16 Afghans, including nine children.

In every case, the military and civilian establishments attempted to distance themselves from what’s now reflexively chalked up to the rogue acts of a few bad apples, though there’s been enough of those to seed a sprawling orchard in Washington State. The behavior, we’re told, in no way reflects on the military or its mission, wherever and whatever that mission happens to be—as if, say, the well-calibrated drone attacks on innumerable targets that as often as not massacre civilians in “surgical” missiles’ paths are somehow more legitimate than soldiers pissing on corpses.

Back when the torture of Iraqis by American soldiers and interrogators was revealed at Abu Ghraib, the quick excuse was that the soldiers were not quite the ready-for-prime-time, exquisitely trained sort that the military takes pride in. They were part of a Maryland Reserve unit that went bad. That homage to weasels isn’t as convincing anymore. Sgt. Robert Bales, the Washington State all-American who killed those 16 Afghans in March, was no reservist. He was one of those admirable professional soldiers—an excellently trained killer—hometowns place at the head of their July 4 parades when such heroes come home. But in his case, as one official put it in time for the talking point memo making its way across news desks, he “snapped.” Family issues. Alcohol. Stress.

The same psychological courtesy is not usually granted terrorists, particularly terrorists with darker skins who murder children.

The soldiers posing with body parts weren’t reservists or weekend warriors, either. The were members of the elite and revered 82nd Airborne Division. The soldier who gave the 18 photographs to the Times had a reason: he was concerned about “a lack of discipline, leadership and security that he said compromised soldiers’ safety — and he cited the photos as one example,” the paper reported. At least that motive was defensible, unlike the Pentagon’s habit of sanitizing to the point of censoring what soldiers actually do in its splendid wars while pliant media usually play along and a public that’s made a fetish of men in uniform gladly pretends that its heroes are as infallible as the pope. The Los Angeles Times’s willingness to publish the soldiers’ macabre games is an exception.

Soldiers will do gruesome things in war. They always have, they always will as long as wars are fought. It doesn’t excuse what the soldiers did in any of these circumstances. But let’s add a little perspective. Look around: the soldiers are acting barbarically, but they’re in barbaric environments where behavior is routinely debased. The Taliban is barely more than a death cult. Its public executions and torture sessions such as stoning and maiming supposed miscreants cheapen life and make a mockery of the religion in whose name the Taliban claims to be fighting. The soldiers who burned Korans at Bagram Air Force Base were stupid, being well aware of the powder keg they were lighting. But stupidity isn’t a crime. Rioting and murder is. The Afghans who caused the death of at least 40 people subsequent to the Koran burning are the fanatics, the barbarians, the murderers. Which raises the question: why the hell are Americans losing their lives fighting for these people?

And a more pertinent question: Who’s really at fault, the young soldiers who are under immense strain, fighting a war they shouldn’t be fighting, in a place they shouldn’t be, and committing gruesome acts and atrocities along the way, or the commanders in chief who put them there, having known for years that there is no such thing as victory in Afghanistan?

George W. Bush started a war no one expected him to finish: little was expected of him and he didn’t disappoint. Barack Obama presumed otherwise. He had a chance to end this war. He escalated it instead. It was part of his electoral strategy in 2008, an atrocity that ensured that the likes of Robert Bales, who might have spent the rest of his life doing nothing worse than brawling with a spouse and maybe detoxing in a county jail on occasion, “snapped” and obliterated several families along the way.

Obama’s cynical ploy worked. He got elected. Like John Kennedy in his first term, Obama’s been willing to send innumerable young men and women to their death to prove he’s no pushover on the world stage. But Osama bin laden is now dead. The mission is accomplished. And never mind that a trillion dollar war never had to be fought to find and kill the guy. Look at the here and now. The United States has no business being in Afghanistan anymore, whether it ever really did or not. Yet Obama carries on, the American objective there as vague as ever, while insurgents, as they showed last Sunday, pull off a mini-Tet Offensive and contradict every claim of American or Afghan successes on the battlefield. Mitt Romney and his Republican acolytes in Congress would be no different. On that score, they’re Obama’s most reliable accomplices.

Yes, American soldiers are committing atrocities. But put the ultimate blame where it belongs: on a military and political leadership that’s leaving them there for an 11th year, for no useful purpose, with no end in sight, no love from Afghans and no strategic gains on the battlefield. That’s the real atrocity.

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16 Responses for “American Soldiers Committing Atrocities: Placing the Blame Where It Belongs”

  1. NoBystanders says:

    Interesting take. Appreciate what you wrote. Think you should read this book: “None of Us Were Like This Before.” It’s very fair, and doesn’t seek to lay blame. But it definitely gets how / why US military forces turned to prisoner abuse, and just how badly it damaged the military and vets.

  2. Jim R. says:

    Come now Pierre, “why the hell are Americans losing their lives fighting for these people”
    They are losing their lives fighting to advance the aims of the Empire and it’s wish to economically and militarily dominate the world.
    America will continue its decline because it can only see the world as ours to run as we see fit, anybody that opposes us is a Terrorist . The possibility that they could just as easily be seen as freedom fighters or patriots never is raised in the political sphere.
    Otherwise a good article

  3. Jack Howell says:

    We need to talk my friend.

  4. ANONYMOUSAY says:

    I’ll never understand how a rich powerful country can invade a poorer weaker country and call it protecting freedoms at home. Tell me what war has brought lasting peace to all mankind. Not just the USA but all mankind? I wonder who those little kids think the terrorist are? We wouldn’t have these problems if people put as much effort into preserving life as much as they do taking one. There are plenty of countries that aren’t war mongers who liver in relative peace. Man will be man, I’ll be your friend as long as I can keep my boot on your throat!

  5. BEEBob says:

    Pierre, you obviously have never been in combat, probably never in the military. You don’t have a clue!

  6. Prescient33 says:

    The incident with the 82nd Airborne is by no means an “atrocity,” which by definition is an “extremely vicious or cruel act, usually involving injury.” The men involved were displaying the pieces of a suicide bomber who had blown himself up in a failed attempt to kill or maim the soldiers who were in the picture. It shows a macabre celebration by the survivors, not an atrocity. Bad taste, ghoulish, disrespectful of the dead, yes, but not an atrocity.
    Beheading people, burning and dragging their corpses through the streets, or hanging them from the bridges, all done by the Taliban, those are atrocities; what was depicted might be considered as desecration at best. It was the bomber himself who caused his body to be blown apart into the pieces shown, not the troops displaying them. The atrocities being committed over there are the suicide bombings in markets, in crowds, in places of worship-all targets of the Taliban.
    War is hell, as they say, but these young men did nothing even approximating an “atrocity.” The author should choose his words and his incidents more carefully if he wishes to make a point.

    • some guy says:

      The author should choose his words and his incidents more carefully if he wishes to make a point.

      BUT he does choose them carefully!!! He picks them to both incite and promote his far far left ideology

  7. NortonSmitty says:

    BEEBoy, I have and it sounds about right to me.

    One fact sorely neglected in the hand-wringing about the uncommon brutality and unprecedented amount of civilian deaths and atrocities being committed by American troops recently is this: Since 2003, the Israeli Defense Force has been contracted to train our troops in Jenin Urban and Insurgent warfare tactics. You know, the ones that they perfected slaughtering the Palestinians like they were animals.

    It basically eliminates the quaint ideas our Armies have always had about minimizing civilian casualties and proportional force and turns the whole theater into a free-fire zone. No wonder we have unprecedented levels of PTSD from our returning vets. Tactics like this will undoubtedly turn the entire Muslim world against us in an eternal war against us. And Israel. What a coincidence.

    The Bales story stinks to high heaven too: A single soldier walks out the main gate of his base at midnight carrying a 6 gallon jerry can of Gasoline, walks a mile and a half into an Afghan village, kills seven women and children (with no return fire in a country where everyone over the age of six has a Kalashnikov), drags the bodies int a pile and burns them. He walks back through the gate, re-loads and grabs another can of gas, walks two miles in the opposite direction and does the same thing in another village? Bullshit!

    All of the villagers interviewed said there were two different SQUADS of soldiers on this rampage, supported by helicopters with searchlights, but you know how those Muslims lie.

  8. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    I think the author’s point is a pretty decent one, but how he got there, as usual, leaves a lot to be desired. We have unreasonable expectations that 19 & 20 year olds with the latest in firearms can transition from elite killing machines to humanitarian aid worker to international diplomat all within the same hour, and after witnessing their friends leg being blown off. Those expectations are unreasonable. But not as unreasonable as the author taking what amounts to a hand full of examples of bad actors and trying to paint the millions of troops that have spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same broad brush. Do the math, even using the authors extremely stretched definition of torture and atrocity, at best he can come up with 5 or 6 examples, compared to the 3-4 million troops that have rotated in and out of both war zones? I think that represents pretty damn good odds.
    I also find it interesting, and perhaps revealing, that the author fails to take his profession to task for the atrocities they’ve caused in these wars. How about the false Newsweek report in 2005 that the Quran was flushed down the toilet, which led to untold deaths around the world, only to be retracted with a “Our bad” apology? What breaking news interest did the LA Times serve by publishing 2 year old pictures of troops posing with body parts of a failed suicide bomber?
    Seems to me the real revelation of this story, and many like it, is the obvious jealousy that exists in the journalism “profession”. Jealousy that American troops are celebrated upon return from the war zone, while they aren’t.

  9. "My Daily Rant" says:

    Well written, I will not attack this one.

  10. palmcoaster says:

    I have only two words to our young and older soldiers abiding their commanders and even sacrificing their lives on that war journey, THANK YOU!
    For those mentioned, photographed in this sad and inhumane circumstances I hope they can get back again into the right compassionate trail and respect other individuals dead or alive for just what they are “human beings” that may never go back home to their own families, as I hope our boys on these pics, will be coming home soon and safe to their families and the normal lives they had before these cruel wars…

    • NortonSmitty says:

      My two would be I’M SORRY! Sorry we sent you in our name to another God-forsaken land to fight another mismanaged campaign under false pretenses again.

  11. Donna De Poalo says:


  12. Sherry Epley says:

    Excellent article Pierre! I often wonder if our leaders ever really think about the best moment to declare a victory and STOP a war. Consider the possibility that we should have declared VICTORY when Saddam Hussein was captured. . . NO? What about when he was put to death. . . NO? What about when Osama Bin Laden was finally killed. . . NO?

    What, exactly, are our leaders trying to accomplish by starting a “military action” without a DRAFT? Consider the possibility that if a DRAFT were required for all “military interventions” involving say more than 500 personnel, there would be far fewer of them. If our political leaders and wealthy families were actually required to put their own loved ones in harm’s way. . . chances are that we could avoid losing the lives and physical/mental capabilites of so many of our brave young citizens. It seems to me that our current policy makes is far too easy for the high level decision makers to send someone else’s kids to the front line.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      If only we had something in the Constitution or somewhere that said a majority of congress had to vote to declare War on another country before the President could send our boys overseas to fight.

  13. Captain America says:

    All the guys I know that joined did so because they “want to kill people”. One thing is for sure, our freedom doesn’t depend on these wars, never has, never will. I feel no sympathy for fighters who choose to fight (for their egos), just their innocent victims, period. Those who cry for child killers, are pretty worthless to me.

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