Anatomy of a War Crime: Behind the Enabling of the ‘Kill Team’

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The story has been remarkable for two reasons. First, for the pure depravity of the alleged crimes. According to Army prosecutors, a small group of soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who were deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-10 went spectacularly, murderously rogue. According to prosecutors, they engaged in routine substance abuse and brutality toward Afghan locals that led to four premeditated murders of innocent civilians, the ritual mutilation of corpses (some of the soldiers reportedly severed fingers from their victims to keep as trophies) and the snapping of celebratory photographs alongside the deceased as if they were bagged deer.

The second reason this tale has been remarkable: it has garnered little attention from the media or the public, even though the allegations started leaking last May and Spc. Jeremy Morlock, one of the five soldiers accused of murder, pled guilty last week and was sentenced to 24 years in prison in exchange for his cooperation in the trials yet to come.

This is not a new story. The case has been covered sporadically, in places like here, here and here. But visuals matter, and Der Spiegel ratcheted up outrage in Europe with a dispatch last week that included several grisly photographs of the soldiers’ mugging for the camera as they desecrated corpses.

But the surprising lack of interest in this case in the U.S. may start changing now that Mark Boal, a journalist and screenwriter (In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker), has published in the latest issue of Rolling Stone the most complete examination yet (including the most explicit photos and videos yet) of how a seemingly average platoon spiraled so thoroughly out of control that it became known as the “Kill Team.”

Reading the story, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. I recently spent three years researching and writing the tale of the breakdown of one platoon from the 101st Airborne Division during its 2005-06 deployment to South Baghdad. Suffering from horrific losses, near daily combat and a breakdown in leadership, the platoon I chronicle in Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death descended into a tailspin of poor discipline, brutality and substance abuse that culminated in a heinous war crime: four members of the platoon raped a 14-year-old girl, then killed her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister.

The similarities are striking. Both tales describe a war-torn platoon that included members who, not long after their deployment began, turned against the locals and the mission and gave into some of their basest instincts and hatreds. Both units operated in a dramatic leadership vacuum during which the chain of command tragically malfunctioned. Both crime sprees had at their center a soldier who was known by his peers to be particularly bloodthirsty. And so far, disciplinary actions have been taken only against the enlisted men who committed the crimes; neither episode has resulted in any known punitive measures against the commanding officers who allowed a climate to exist in which it was possible for such crimes to take place.

Reading the account in Rolling Stone, however, I was struck by some differences that make this case even more dispiriting.

The extent and length of the conspiracy: Although the platoon I chronicle in Black Hearts became “combat ineffective” within months of its arrival in Iraq, and a small handful of the members were sending warning sign after warning sign that they were a threat to civilians, the heinous rape-murder plan was concocted over one long day during which three or four unsupervised soldiers with access to alcohol dreamed up the plan, carried it out, and then conspired to keep the truth among themselves and one or two additional soldiers. In the Kill Team case, it appears that a much wider group of soldiers (as many as 12 have been charged with some type of crime) were aware of, if not abettors or participants in, at least four separate murders that spanned four months. According to one soldier quoted in an Army investigation, “pretty much the whole platoon” knew about the murders.

The complicity of the chain of command: In Black Hearts, the unit’s leadership may have been dysfunctional, but once it became aware that U.S. soldiers might be involved in a crime, it moved swiftly to investigate the matter. If the Rolling Stone account is accurate, the Kill Team’s superiors never seriously investigated any of the unit’s suspicious kills, even when confronted with direct accusations by Afghans and the father of one U.S. soldier whose son had confided in him.

With four more Kill Team soldiers’ murder trials still to come, this case may continue to yield new and disturbing revelations in the months ahead.

-Jim Frederick is the managing editor of and executive editor of TIME magazine.