I had seen, in passing, headlines about some American soldiers alleged to have killed some Afghan civilians, but I had flitted by the stories, thinking — hoping, perhaps — that maybe it wasn’t a big deal and would pass on by.
But then came Tuesday’s front-page story in The New York Times, and I found myself quickly enmeshed.
If you haven’t heard about this story, you need to start following it. It turns conventional battlefield accounts about loss of life upside down and points to the sickness, the infestation that can afflict the ranks of the perceived “good guys.” That would be us.
It’s the story of a high-school dropout from Billings, Mont., who somehow rose to the rank of staff sergeant in the Army and now stands charged with murdering, or orchestrating the murders of, three Afghan civilians.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, is alleged to have collected fingers from the bodies of his victims and rolled them out like dice to intimidate a fellow soldier who had reported widespread use of hashish in Gibbs’ unit. Gibbs also is alleged to have kept track, via skull tattoos on his lower left leg, of the number of “kills” he had made in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the record, the count is six — three in Iraq to augment the three in Afghanistan.
Four other Army enlisted men — two privates first class and two specialists –also are charged with murder. Gibbs is said to have openly discussed how he might kill one of the other soldiers, Specialist Adam C. Winfield, who, Gibbs feared, might report the killings. In one scenario, Gibbs would take Winfield to the gym and drop a weight on his neck. In another scenario, he would take Winfield to the motor pool and drop a heavy piece of equipment on him.
Gibbs earned just one of 20 credits needed to graduate from high school, but it sure appears that he had a vivid imagination when it came to killing.
With The Times’ story, there’s a mug shot of Gibbs, smiling and wearing a plaid shirt, standing in front of a doorway. You look at that picture and see what appears to be a normal kid, whom you probably wouldn’t think twice about if you passed him on the street.
But above his photo is an excerpt of a statement from the soldier who had reported the use of hashish in the unit. The soldier is quoted as saying:
“I was just sitting there on my cot…and that is when CPL (Jeremy) Morlock (another defendant in the case) and SSG Gibbs came back into the room, they calmly sat down and ask (stet) me how my day was going. SSG Gibbs then proceeded to roll out a set of fingers onto the floor. CPL Morlock looked at me and said if I don’t want to end up like that guy then he suggest I shut the hell up and it wouldn’t be an issue for him because he already had enough practice. SSG Gibbs was just sitting there agreeing with CPP Morlock, he was being subtle and quite (stet) but didn’t get worked up. When they were done, SSG Gibbs picked up the fingers, rolled them up and stuck them back in his pocket. Then they left the room.”
Stuck them back in his pocket. The smiling guy in the photo!
As you might expect, the story drew a guttural reaction from readers. (An accompanying story detailed how two of the civilians died.) As of 2:09 p.m. Tuesday, 247 comments had been affixed to the story. At that point, comments were shut off.
Here are excerpts of a few of the comments:
— From P. Clayton, of New Jersey: “No one wants to admit the ability to see one of our…men behaving in such an abominable way, but it has happened before in other wars that America engaged in so why not now in Afghanistan? Within this article, which probably only scratches the surface when it comes to analyzing Gibbs’ personality, there are many details that fit the profile of a soldier gone awry, including threatening his fellow soldiers and keeping records of his ‘kills’ via tattoos; how gruesome is that?”
— From JD, of Austin: “While Staff Sergeant Gibbs’s alleged actions disgust me and, if true, are a stain on this nation’s honor (one of many…), I challenge you to consider the nature of war before condemning and demonizing him so quickly. War is a nasty reality, and unless you’ve been there, you really don’t know what it’s like or what you would do. I consider myself a pretty humane and decent guy. I served two tours in Iraq, and I did things there that to this day I’m not proud of. War hardens the heart and clouds the mind. Until you’ve been in contact with the enemy, don’t be so quick to write off the soldier as a monster and a murderer.”
— From Ralph, of San Francisco: “Young men with weapons in war time do despicable things. I saw it in Vietnam. Generally, they get away with it. Investigation from the Inspector General’s office are exercises in futility. It just happens. If you vote for war, you get war. If you go to war, you learn that the morality changes.”
— From Andrew, of Minneapolis: “Completed only 1 of 20 credits in high school? Apparently the Army has been scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s consistent with reports of greatly lowered recruiting standards following the advent of Bush’s wars.”
— From MikeLT, of Boston: “This is what we get for sending video game-loving kids to war. If the allegations are true, he’s elevated the killing in the games to real killing.”
My comment? I’m glad I never had to go to war, and I’m happy to say that the only things I’ve ever wanted in my pockets were cash, credit cards and my driver’s license.