Some of you may have followed with interest the story of Staff Seargent Calvin Gibbs, a 25-year old Mormon boy who went to war and allegedly became the ringleader of a rogue “kill team,” taking pleasure in murdering and mutilating Afghan civilians; according to his fellow soldiers he was (in Col. Kurtz fashion) trying to save enough human fingers to make a necklace.  The “kill team” would plan a murder, then plant ammunition near the dead civilian to support their claim of self-defense.  In a country where loyalties are difficult to ascertain, their killing went on until one soldier in the unit notified higher ups about what they were doing.  According to fellow soldiers, Gibbs threatened to “cripple” the private who spoke out.

What turns a soldier into a murderer?  Is it the prolonged exposure to violence?  Is it their upbringing?  The difference between a soldier and a murderer seems to be a progression:

  • A killer is someone anyone who takes life (intentionally or accidentally in the case of manslaughter).
  • A soldier is hired to kill a government’s designated enemies as directed; those who lead soldiers plan strategies that involve killing toward the governmental agency’s interests and stated objectives.
  • A murderer is someone who premeditates killing and carries out that plan.

Michael Ware, a CNN war correspondent shared this exchange between him and a Marine in Iraq.  Between firefights in Ramadi, Ware told the Marine, “When I go home, people ask, ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve seen?'”  “What do you tell them?” he asked.  “I say, ‘You haven’t earned the right to know.'”  The marine went quiet, then said, “You know what they ask me when I go home?  ‘How many people have you killed?'”  “And what do you tell them?” I asked.  The Marine answered, “I tell them that is between me and the dead.”

So, in war, it may be not such a long distance from being a leader of soldiers to being a leader of a “kill team,” particularly if the leader of the group is predisposed to capitalize on the environment.  The fact that Gibbs was a Mormon only makes this particular war crime hit closer to home for us as Mormons.  Clearly, if the allegations are correct, his behavior is sociopathic.  In a recent conversation with jmb275, he mentioned a quote from the show “Criminal Minds” in which Mandy Patinkin’s character says:  “Genetics loads the gun, psychology aims it, and the environment pulls the trigger.”  As Joseph Conrad pointed out in Heart of Darkness, the ability to descend into madness and darkness is within all of us.  The line between “normal” and “sociopath” is not as wide as we’d like to think.
If environment pulls the trigger, how does the army create an environment that pulls the trigger for sociopaths?  In addition to the obvious relentless exposure to violence that deadens all sensitivity it, there are three additional environmental factors that contribute that are not always present.  The army must avoid these or risk even more incidents like this one:
  1. Unclear enemies.  One of the things some members of the “kill team” pointed out was that it was very difficult to assess which Afghans were selling them out to the Taliban, which ones were truly innocent and which ones were complicit.  This led to a suspicion and hatred of the local people, and to rationalization for murdering civilians.  According to the Michael Ware article mentioned above:  “In war, everyone lies; their government, our government, the rebels–even civilians lie through exaggeration or confusion.”
  2. Questionable higher purpose.  This has been especially tricky in wars we have fought on behalf of other people, in which the protection of our freedoms is not directly manifest.  Vietnam was another war after which some of these same types of atrocities came to light.  Soldiers who leave home with feelings of patriotism for a greater cause become disillusioned when they see that locals do not view them as liberators and the local political situation is far more complex and entrenched than they were led to believe.
  3. Lack of oversight.  When there is a disconnect between the strategy and the ground reality, those on the ground realize that their actions are not clearly understood by higher ups.  It is apparent that they do not have oversight by leaders and won’t be held accountable.  A rogue leader can, in this environment, create a subculture to his own liking, including a culture of murder.
So, realistically, short of not fighting wars anymore which is probably unrealistic when there are people out there who want to kill Americans for sport or to prove a point, what can the army do to prevent creating this kind of environment?  Here are some ideas:
  1. Better psych evals.  While these exist, there is a need to improve the results and to more thoroughly assess both nature and nurture factors that contribute to someone going off the deep end in the environment of the army.  The problem is that someone may have the factors but not be aware and not exhibit the tendencies until s/he is in the environment.
  2. Reduce the length of deployment.  Obviously, this is difficult when there are not enough volunteers to man an army.
  3. Better oversight.  Bridge the gap between ground level leadership and higher level command.
  4. Different methods.  There are a couple of warfare innovations that would help:  1) consider more fully automated armies (drones, not soldiers), or 2) eliminate most hand-to-hand combat through alternate technologies.  We are rapidly creating robotics capable of wartime activities.  UAVs, pack robots and intelligent ground vehicles already exist.  These aren’t just Battlestar Galactica props; we have real traction to drastically reduce the need for human soldiers.  On the downside, when we turn war over to the machines, we run the risk of becoming too far removed from killing, making it only too easy to “push the button” and annhialate our enemies.  And technologies we turn on others can be turned on us as well.

So, what do you think needs to be done to keep our soldiers safe from sociopaths?  How do you recommend we keep soldiers from turning into murderers or from being surrounded by a culture of murder?  Discuss.