What chance is there that the US legal system will deliver justice in the case of the US soldier accused of murdering sixteen Afghan civilians? Would the US execute one of its own, knowing how that would be received by the military establishment? Everyone from President Obama down has called for calm while the events are being investigated. But what chance is there that the process will be speedy and fair.
We already see a defense for the indefensible being leaked out, undoubtedly to mitigate the circumstances surrounding this outrage. Reports are appearing that the soldier is deranged (possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress) or even insane. If the insanity case fits, what was he doing in Afghanistan and why was he even armed? In fact, he shouldn’t have been in the army in the first place, let alone in a combat zone. The ultimate responsibility for allowing an unfit soldier into the frontline should lie with the US command, but will they take responsible for his actions?
History suggests that the US military court system is less interested in meting out justice, than in protecting the reputation and the morale of US forces, who would be angry if they thought that they could be held accountable for carrying out their patriotic duty. Let’s look at past records of how similar incidents were handled.
From July 26 to 29, 1950, up to 400 Korean civilians were killed near the hamlet of No Gun Ri by soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment during the Korean War. Refugees trying to escape advancing North Korean forces were wiped out as they crossed U.S. military lines because the commander, General Hobart R. Gay, feared that North Korean soldiers in disguise might number among the refugees. The massacre was hushed up until September 1999, when reporter Charles Hanley published an account in the Associated Press. No prosecutions resulted from this outrage.
Despite a cover-up, news broke that in Mỹ Lai, a Vietnamese hamlet, between 347 and 504 unarmed women and children, including babies, were mowed down on March 16, 1968, by “Charlie” Company of 1st Battalion. It was not until November 17, 1970, that charges were laid. The only person held to account was Captain William Calley, who was convicted five months later with premeditated murder. He was initially sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. On appeal Calley’s sentence was reduced to three and a half years under house arrest at Fort Benning. Most of the enlisted men involved had already left military service and were legally exempt from prosecution.
At the beginning of 2004, photos published from Abu Ghraib prison showing US troops humiliating, sexually abusing, and torturing prisoners shocked the world. The heaviest penalty was meted out to Specialist Charles Graner, who was found guilty of conspiracy to maltreat detainees, failing to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty, and maltreatment, as well as charges of assault, indecency, adultery, and obstruction of justice. On January 15, 2005, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and was dishonorably discharged. Graner was paroled from the US military’s Fort Leavenworth prison on August 6, 2011, after serving six and a half years. Others involved also got off with short sentences, fines, and dishonorable discharges.
Finally, on November 19, 2005, a group of US marines killed twenty-four unarmed men, women, and children in the city of Haditha in Western Iraq. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich admitted to telling his men to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Wuterich and eight of his marines were charged on December 21, 2006, but six had their charges dropped and one was found not guilty. Originally charged with murder, Wuterich’s sentences were later reduced to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, and after a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty. Wuterich was sentenced on January 24, 2012, to forfeit two-thirds of his pay for three months and was reduced in rank to private.
Back to the situation in Afghanistan. On March 12, President Barack Obama promised a speedy investigation into the “shocking” killing of sixteen Afghans by a rogue US soldier. If history is to be our guide, don’t hold your breath.