As Chris noted, the soldiers knew they were killing innocents:
Asked by the judge what his intent was, [Corporal Jeremy] Morlock replied, “The plan was to kill people.”
“Did everybody know, `We’re killing people who are completely innocent’?” the judge asked.
“Generally, yes, sir, everyone knew,” Morlock replied.
Painful. But I want to spotlight these comments by Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker about this incident.
First, our soldiers — and our whole society — are victims of our wars. We desensitize both them and ourselves, to the point where we make monsters of us all (my emphasis and minor paragraphing):
Why photograph atrocities? And why pass them around to buddies back home or fellow soldiers in other units? How could the soldiers’ sense of what is unacceptable be so lost? No outsider can have a complete answer to such a question. As someone who has been writing about war crimes since My Lai, though, I have come to have a personal belief: these soldiers had come to accept the killing of civilians—recklessly, as payback, or just at random—as a facet of modern unconventional warfare.
In other words, killing itself, whether in a firefight with the Taliban or in sport with innocent bystanders in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs, has become ordinary. In long, unsuccessful wars, in which the enemy—the people trying to kill you—do not wear uniforms and are seldom seen, soldiers can lose their bearings, moral and otherwise. The consequences of that lost bearing can be hideous. This is part of the toll wars take on the young people we send to fight them for us. The G.I.s in Afghanistan were responsible for their actions, of course. But it must be said that, in some cases, surely, as in Vietnam, the soldiers can also be victims.
Not innocent victims, but victims nonetheless.
Same with ourselves: not innocent, but victims. To choose one example from many: it has become ordinary in the U.S. to accept war by decree, by presidential fiat, instead of by democratic deliberation of our elected Congress. The U.S. hasn’t declared war since Pearl Harbor. And most of us go on with our lives, thinking ourselves relieved of responsibility.
That’s the song of the guilty, thinking that Afghan brutality is somehow just the president’s fault. Yet we huddle under his umbrella.
Second, this will come home. That cannot be stopped, not by dreams of exceptionalism, nor by any number of Cheney-esque power fantasies. Hersh comments here (and not for the first time):
The Der Spiegel photographs also help to explain why the American war in Afghanistan can probably never be “won,” in my view, just as we did not win in Vietnam. Terrible things happen in war, and terrible things are happening every day in Afghanistan, as Americans continue to conduct nightly assassination raids and have escalated the number of bombing sorties. There are also reports of suspected Taliban sympathizers we turn over to Afghan police and soldiers being tortured or worse.
This will be a long haul; revenge in Afghan society does not have to come immediately. We could end up not knowing who hit us, or why, a decade or two from now.
Revenge in Afghan society. Even if we turned the whole country — shopping malls and golf courses, crystal cathedrals and condo-complexes — into a mass of barbed-wire gate-checked communities — ask yourself, what could a determined vengeance-seeker do to us? The answer is obvious; anything he wants.
You’d have to put a security check outside of every security check, to make sure the Bads didn’t get into the security lines, and blow it up. Think about it; that’s an M.C. Escher impossibility.
We could be hosed for a generation thanks to this stuff. All of us.