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Did US soldiers create Afghan Killing Club Pt. 2 – Is Army culture to blame for the crimes?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us again from Portland, Oregon, is Hal Bernton. Hal is a staff reporter at The Seattle Times for the last ten years. He’s reported from Afghanistan, he was embedded with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and he’s covering the stories of the soldiers charged with murdering civilians for sport. Thanks for joining us, Hal.


JAY: In the first segment we talked about five soldiers who have been charged with deliberately killing civilians in Afghanistan as a kind of killing club or for sport in some way. Other soldiers have been charged with other crimes in that unit, some of them for attempting to kill civilians, if I understand it correctly, and for drug use. But let’s talk a little bit about the bigger context. First of all, we hear many reports that a great number of soldiers are using antianxiety drugs, are smoking either marijuana or using hashish. It’s a very drug-induced atmosphere. So, first of all, in your experience there, do you find that’s true? And what role do you think it might play in all of this?

BERNTON: Well, I’d like to say that what I’ve seen is, yes, for legal prescription drugs, that’s been very well documented. The army’s talked about that issue. The question of how many soldiers are actually smoking hashish or illegal drugs, I don’t know that that’s a big number. I certainly did not see that when I was there. Yes, the Afghan police were smoking hashish. The Afghan police were very much involved in drugs and such. But the soldiers I was with when I was embedded were not.

JAY: But are the antianxiety drugs—and apparently some of them are pretty powerful—perhaps even more problematic in the sense of what it might do to one’s judgment? And then the underlying issue is, is this normal anxiety about fighting in a war? Or is this fighting in a war that people, soldiers, don’t seem to understand?

BERNTON: One of the things you have to realize is there’s been a tremendous amount of IED [improvised explosive device] attacks in southern Afghanistan, as there was in Iraq. Plus there have been a lot of concussive events. Many soldiers are prescribed prescription drugs after these concussive events. Certainly, one of the soldiers who we know (Specialist Jeremy Morlock) was implicated in the murders had been involved in four different (according to his attorney) explosions that had resulted in some concussions, and he was actually being medically evacuated at the time he was questioned. So I don’t really think you can make any sort of parallel between being on these drugs and this type of activity, because lots of people are having to use prescription drugs, and as far as we know, there’s not widespread conduct like this that’s alleged within the army. So I think that you really have to be careful about linking—trying to draw some links between those two things.

JAY: The army is saying that this activity of this group was an aberration. Do you get a sense that is the case? Or is the aberration [that] more of this hasn’t come to light?

BERNTON: Well, as far as I know, this is an aberration. When I was in Afghanistan, I was in another battalion in the same Stryker brigade as this unit, and those soldiers really were working very hard to try to win the confidence of the Afghan civilians so that basically they could get their mission accomplished, which was trying to improve security, reopen schools, find out where the Talibans were hiding, and all those types of things. And I saw them at their moment of greatest anguish, when there was a possibility that mortars from the unit had accidentally killed some civilians and young boys. And they had had to treat these civilians and spend a long day getting them medically evacuated, and after that they were just emotionally distraught. So the last thing they wanted to do was basically undercut what they were doing by deliberately killing civilians. I saw them reach out to civilians.

JAY: A few months ago on The Real News we interviewed a young soldier—[and people who want to see this story can watch this interview on The Real News Network, and it will be linked to it.]– He described in boot camp a situation where the killing of civilians was part of your training, in a sense, that they actually, he claims, marched to a chant which had to do with going down to the market and killing women and children,—


JOSH STIEBER, IRAQ VETERAN: One that stands out in my mind goes, “I went down to the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete and I began to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun and I began to spray.”


JAY: —to take ordinary people out of American civilian life and get them prepared for a theater of war. In any situation, with any community, a certain percentage of people, you could say, might be predispositioned to a kind of sociopathy. Certainly not the majority. But give that kind of training and give that kind of a war, is there a problem that at the senior levels of the Armed Forces, where they want to maintain a sort of militancy and are willing to go out and fight and die and kill, that these kinds of people aren’t suppressed, that there’s not a serious enough action taken to stop this kind of stuff?

BERNTON: Well, certainly there’s been talk that the army itself needs to focus more on its training standards. There’s been a lot of talk about rebuilding garrison life after long periods of rapid deployment, of trying to—there’s concerns about alcoholism, illegal drug use, and other things within the force, and a sense of needing to get a better discipline on army life, and allowing for longer time between deployments, a sense that the army is stretched. That’s been expressed by a lot of the army leaders, and there is a focus there. I don’t know about that training. Of course, I’ve never witnessed anything like that. All I could say is that when you do see a Taliban fighter, he’s not wearing some Taliban uniform that everybody—with his rank and insignia, so it is a difficult fight. That said, there’s been a huge focus, first under [Stanley] McChrystal and continued under [David] Petraeus, about actually trying to avoid killing civilians, and even to the point where they’ve issued some guidance talking about what they called “courageous restraint”, which was celebrating the actions of soldiers who put their own lives at risk to avoid killing civilians in a dicey situation. And, actually, those types of rules have triggered a little bit of a backlash from soldiers, who are saying that their hands are tied, that the rules of engagement are too strict, that after all they’re infantry soldiers, they’re trained to close and destroy on an enemy force, and that’s what they’re supposed to do. And of course Petraeus even did call for some review of those rules of engagement. So I really think there’s been an effort to include the safeguards for the civilian population, for the very simple reason, they said, that if we harm too many of the civilians, we’re not going to win this fight.

JAY: How do people explain this (apparently) reluctance to listen to the father of one of the soldiers that tried to report this? I mean, there seemed to be—the army did not seem very interested in finding out about this story.

BERNTON: You know, we just learned of this last week, reviewed some of the initial documents. We’re still digging into that. There seems to be, if what he says is accurate, a pretty significant breakdown [of] how that happened and where it happened, because I’ve talked with folks in the field who say that they never got any sort of heads-up from those February calls. So why that happened, I don’t really know yet.

JAY: Okay. What’s next? When do they expect this to come to trial?

BERNTON: Well, the trials will—first there’s something called an Article 32 hearing. That’s where each soldier has a hearing where they decide: is there enough evidence to move ahead with a court-martial trial? And those Article 32 hearings are expected over the next few months. And then there’ll be trials. Some people, of course, might opt to plead out prior to a trial. We have no idea. Maybe some charges will be dropped or tossed out. But this process is going to unfold over months, for sure, and we’re still trying to get a sense of who will actually go to trial.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Hal.

BERNTON: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times for the past 10 years, and helped cover the military for most of that time. His overseas assignments have included a reporting trip to Iraq in late 2003 and nine weeks spent last summer and fall in Afghanistan. He spent two of those weeks reporting from Kandahar Province, where he was embedded with a battalion from the 5th (Stryker Combat Team) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Bernton previously worked for The Oregonian and The Anchorage Daily News.