If the image above is unsettling for some, imagine what your reactions would be if that were a human on the ground instead of a massive Lion and the men above it were still smiling. Hard to imagine? Not for those of us who served in combat areas while in the military. This “trophy” mentality of wild game hunters is pervasive among some men who when put into a position where killing of humans has some legitimacy, like wars, will fulfill this dark urge as if they were on a deer hunt back home.
The latest and saddest news out of the war in Afghanistan shows where this extreme behavior has displayed itself with several veterans from a US Stryker tank unit that operated in the southern province of Kandahar and who are now on trial for their crimes. An investigation by Der Spiegel has unearthed approximately 4,000 photos and videos taken by 12 men who deliberately sought out and murdered innocent Afghan civilians. “Five of the soldiers are on trial for pre-meditated murder, after they staged killings to make it look like they were defending themselves from Taliban attacks.”
“The lengthy Spiegel article that accompanies the photographs contains new details about the sadistic behaviour of the men. In one incident in May last year, the article says, during a patrol, the team apprehended a mullah who was standing by the road and took him into a ditch where they made him kneel down.
The group’s leader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, then allegedly threw a grenade at the man while an order was given for him to be shot. Afterwards, Gibbs is described cutting off one of the man’s little fingers and removing a tooth. The patrol team later claimed to their superiors that the mullah had tried to threaten them with a grenade and that they had no choice but to shoot.” (US Army ‘kill team’ in Afghanistan posed for photos of murdered civilians, by Jon Boone, gaurdian.co.uk, 3/21/11)
The three pictures that Der Spiegel has released show these men posing, holding body parts of dead civilians they deliberately killed as if posing for the next issue of Hunting or Outdoor LIfe magazines. One of them shows the head of a dead Afghan civilian being held up by their murderer, as he looked into the camera smiling.
This horrible behavior aroused a very unpleasant experience for me while I served in Vietnam. It occurred following the first night of the massive Tet offensive in 1967. My missile battalion that had been stationed on a high hill overlooking the Da-Nang harbor was attacked with a barrage of mortars. During this mortar attack a handful of NVA (North Vietnamese Army regulars) approached several bunkers that shielded light anti-aircraft missiles and radar units, hoisting satchel charges into them in an attempt to destroy the equipment and kill who ever was standing guard duty at that post.
There was little significant damage and only a few minor injuries but the next morning a sweep of the area found a dead NVA officer just the other side of our perimeter wire. His own death was either the result of a premature detonation of the explosive he was sent to deliver or was hit with shrapnel from incoming rounds we called for from the USS New Jersey sitting in the Da-Nang harbor after the initial mortar barrage began.
His dead corpse was a symbol of the near death many of us faced the night before. But rather than doing the militarily honorable thing and sending the body to our graves registration division to be processed and offered to the Vietnamese government for identification and allowing possible family members to claim the remains, some of my comrades instead decided to “have a little fun” with the corpse.
The Viet Cong soldier was in his early twenties. A fragment from an explosive had cleanly opened his front torso where the intestines lay out in as clean and neatly a manner as if it were done by a surgeon on a cadaver for instructional purposes at a medical school. Two of my fellow Marines picked the “gook” up (an insensitive and pejorative term we commonly used for the Vietnamese) by each ear and stuck a cigarette in his mouth while another Marine took the picture. Later the CO of the combat security unit that was assigned to our missile battalion authorized his men to take the body to the side of the mountain and roll it down the slope to allow his comrades to claim it later, if they so chose.
I post these graphic details reluctantly and only to expose the awful things men can do in combat situations. Clearly not all of those who wear the uniform are guilty of such actions and many like myself find it repulsive. But like myself, fail to report such behavior when they see it. Thankfully, some do.
I was 19 years-old at the time and was overwhelmed by the spectacle and the near death experience the night before. Besides, I honestly cannot recall receiving any training on what was considered illegal under Geneva Convention rules about such behavior. But I often question my failure to see this indecent human display by fellow Marines as that which we typically reserve only for those we declare to be our enemies. What transpired in my training and my combat experiences that led me to think that this was somehow par for the course?
Such behavior is steeped in our culture. David, after he killed Goliath, ran over and pulled the Philistine’s sword from its sheath and used it to cut off his head? He then held the head up to the Philistine army to instill fear in them. Similar practices have been noted in many land battles by military warriors until recent times. As we became more civilized and such “lower” forms of behavior were seen as the acts of “unholy” men, this ritual slowly disappeared from our conscious psyche and declared inhumane by the conventions written in Geneva, Switzerland following the first world war.
But the acts of these 12 men were far short of noble. Some brutally murdered innocent civilians then took pictures of their kill as game hunters do today. This trophy mentality with game hunters has always seemed a perversion to me.
What some sportsman view as a natural act of “conquest” I suppose is that genetic holdover of our past when we were hunter/gatherers. What separates the contemporary hunter however from our earlier species was that earlier man relied upon such kills for survival, not mere sport. And the reverence earlier man had for the animals they tracked and killed often forbid them to display their body parts as trophies but were used only for practical purposes. Such trophy displays are not only wrong but demonstrate a cruelty of mind that, as we are witness to again, can be taken too far when carried into combat.
Lest we think such cruel mentalities exist with only that element of society we relegate to less sophisticated, immoral types which find themselves in life-threatening situations, let’s not forget those extremist within religious and political clans amongst us who demonize their perceived enemies in vicious ways. Had some of these same people found themselves in combat situations would they be equal to the murderous cruelty that these 12 American soldiers are accused of?
- More Damaging Than Abu Ghraib? Repugnant Army ‘Kill Team’ Took Photos, Trophies from Murdered Afghan Civilians (alternet.org)
- Military apologizes for Afghan abuse photos (capitolhillblue.com)