During the court martial proceedings that found him guilty of murdering three unarmed Afghans for sport, Army Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 23, told the judge he'd had time to reflect on "how I could become so insensitive and how I lost my moral compass.
"I don't know if I will ever be able to answer those questions," he added.
Well, the U.S. military had better search for some answers of its own. Morlock, along with a handful of other rogue soldiers who formed a "kill team" to murder Afghan civilians at random, has stained the armed forces with hideous war crimes and in so doing has exposed other American forces to retaliation. Photos of Morlock and others posing with their victims like trophies are available online. Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, recently published three of the many images.
The easy rationalization would be that these soldiers and their horrific deeds are aberrations from the daily acts of bravery and character displayed by the majority of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. True enough. But it doesn't answer Spc. Morlock's question.
The mental stability of our troops is as imperative as proper working artillery and weapons training. Tremendous percentages of military are serving and returning home with debilitating levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. We're losing a staggering number to suicide.
Morlock had his share of personal problems: a history of concussions, a dependence on hash and sedatives, the tragic death of his father in 2007, a year after the son enlisted. That's not to say that Morlock didn't receive a fair sentence in drawing 24 years. Or that he wasn't mentally cognizant of his actions. In fact, I believe he was sentenced too lightly. But that's how it goes with plea bargains.
Morlock's testimony will be key in the trials of four other soldiers who allegedly took part in the killings. Morlock can be seen blandly recounting to military prosecutors in a videotaped confession how Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the kill team's alleged ringleader, directed him and another soldier to "wax this guy" (referring to an unarmed civilian they subsequently murdered). Gibbs, to judge from accounts of his behavior circulating in the press, is a real piece of work, and his trial will likely be the main event of this affair.
What a shocked and disgusted American public wants to know is how this mayhem was permitted to go on. Why didn't the chain of command do anything to prevent it? Morlock's defense team claimed the brigade was a picture of "chaos and disorganization," plagued with high levels "mistrust." An expert witness raised the example set by an officer no longer in charge of the brigade. Col. Harry Tunnell, by many accounts, was seriously at odds with the counterinsurgency strategy of outreach favored by military brass in Afghanistan. His proclivities apparently ran more to "search and destroy" than "hearts and minds." Gibbs, before joining 5th Stryker, had been on Tunnell's security detail.
The Army reportedly is conducting a separate investigation of the command of 5th Stryker Brigade. But if Morlock's trial is any indication, the Army has no interest in moving the court martial proceedings up the chain of command.
In a surreal sign of our times, the murders were exposed at least in part by Facebook. One of the accused soldiers posted a message to his parents about the first murders and plans for more killings. His father alerted the soldier's superiors. No action was taken for several months, until another solider also reported the murders during an investigation of drug use and other misconduct by soldiers, when an inquiry escalated.
Looking at photos and video of Morlock, you see he's just a kid, dressed in battle fatigues. But he seems dead inside.
War can unravel the values and norms children learn from parents, their faith and communities. Especially when young soldiers are placed under the command of a monster like Gibbs. Morlock told the judge that he "wasn't fully prepared for the reality of war as it was being fought in Afghanistan." Given what we are learning now, I wonder if the same thing isn't true of our military leadership.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.