Why good men go bad
Massacre in PanjwaiRobert Fox
- 17 March 2012
The murder last weekend of Afghan villagers and children by a lone US soldier has raised tension in an already difficult situation and increased calls for the withdrawal of Nato troops. It also poses questions about the impact of modern warfare on the people who fight it
It may have been an act of madness, but it was methodical. What makes a 38-year-old man, a hardened military professional and father of two, get up in the middle of the night, leave his Kandahar base and deliberately murder at least 16 villagers, among them six children and their mothers? The US staff sergeant knocked on compound doors in the Afghan village, and once inside, lined up the sleepy occupants and shot each of them them in the head with a single bullet. He then laid the bodies out, covered them and set them alight.
The killing spree in the Panjwai village last weekend was profoundly shocking on many levels, raising immediate and long-term questions, not least about the impact of warfare on soldiers. How was the man’s crack-up not spotted? How could he wander off base, tooled up with weapons, stroll down the road bent on murder, while none of his colleagues or superiors move a muscle to stop him? Was it the case that the Green Berets sent as watchdogs and mentors to the farmers of Panjwai could not bark in the night when one of their own went rogue?
The consequences for the families and villages are incalculable. The consequences for the Pashtuns of Kandahar, among them President Karzai, and the Afghan nation are unpredictable. The president condemned the episode as an attack by Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) on his people and wants the culprit brought to book. The killings have brought a motion of general condemnation of Nato forces from the Afghan parliament, mass demonstrations in Jalalabad, and a full-scale Taliban attack in Kandahar. One experienced British commander in Afghanistan said he fully understood the position of the Afghan government. “President Karzai could not do anything else.”
The Panjwai deaths recall the mass murder of civilians in Vietnam and Iraq, when military units or individuals abandoned the norms of humanity and went berserk. On 16 March 1968 a US infantry platoon commanded by Lieutenant William Calley was responsible for killing hundreds of peasants in the village of My Lai. Even US Army records cannot decide whether the final death toll was 347 or 504. Of all those involved only Lt Calley was tried, and eventually convicted, on a charge of murdering civilians. After three years he was released on an order from President Richard Nixon.
On 19 November 2005, a party of US Marines murdered 24 civilians – including mothers, children and a 76-year-old-man in a wheelchair – in Haditha, in Anbar province in Iraq. Only one member of the military party, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, faced a capital charge. He was initially accused of killing two women and five children, but avoided a possible jail sentence of 152 years by pleading guilty to a lesser charge the day before his case came to trial. In the event, he was reduced to the rank of private but received no prison sentence at all. Charges against six other marines were dropped, and another was acquitted in a court martial.
In all three of these killing sprees, the military units had been under stress, losing soldiers from ambushes and booby-trap bomb attacks. The unidentified staff sergeant’s unit in Panjwai had lost two solders shot and three blown up by a roadside IED (improvised explosive device) in the past seven weeks. In all three episodes, the soldiers were involved in long and increasingly unpopular wars. In Afghanistan and Iraq, some US ground units have been deployed for nearly a year and a half at a stretch. Fatigue brings disorientation, and erodes belief in the mission itself.
This is matched by the lack of credulity of the people the soldiers are there to protect. This is the point we have reached with the villagers of rural Kandahar and Helmand. To them the American and Nato forces are aliens, speaking incomprehensible tongues and inexplicably configured with goggles and helmets, and seemingly joined to their machines, tanks and carriers, like robotic centaurs. The aliens’ presence, the Panjwai and Helmand farmers say again and again, “brings pain and death, … we didn’t ask for them to come here”.
But how can the breaking point be spotted – and mitigated – when people lose all discipline and self-control, as happened with the Panjwai killings? The same question applied in the aftermath of the killing sprees at Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996, and of the rampage by Raoul Moat across Cumbria two years ago. “You can never tell,” observes a friend of mine who commanded in the Falklands war of 1982 and in Iraq. “More Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the conflict than the 255 who died in action during the seven-week campaign.”
Despite that high suicide figure, this former commander says that his battalion of the Parachute Regiment suffered less post traumatic stress than the divisional headquarters that he later commanded in Basra. “In 1982, the battalion was a team who knew each other. The headquarters were just brought together for that deployment. Once we landed back at [RAF] Brize Norton, we all went our separate ways, and quite a number suffered.” By contrast, the biggest cause of stress of his troop in Basra was being shelled and mortared by the militias for days on end. Many soldiers subsequently needed residential psychiatric care.
My friend, now a general, says that the need for “safety valves” – for time to “let soldiers let off steam” – deeply divides military commanders, particularly the Americans and the British. Wherever he could, he told me, he would allow alcohol to be consumed in moderation every four or five days – and this helped. Such practices are banned among US forces, which were affected by a high incidence of drug-taking among conscripts sent to Vietnam. He fears that stress management – or mismanagement – lies at the heart of what went wrong last weekend in Panjwai.
One of the most persuasive insights into the issue is provided by the social psychologist, Professor Philip Zimbardo. In 1971 he and a colleague ran the controversial Stanford University prison experiment, in which students were picked at random to role-play as prisoners and custodians in a college basement. Within a day or two the prisoner-players became depressed, rebelled and tried to abandon the experiment. The captors played the parts of being guards – and mental torturers even – with enthusiasm and excess. The experiment led to a scandal on the campus, and a round of staff sackings.
In his book The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo relates the experiment and its consequences to the scandal of the misconduct of US military guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. He also acted as an expert defence witness for some of the Abu Ghraib accused. In the book he tries to establish why soldiers brought up under a code of professional discipline and the ethics of a mature community, quickly and dramatically go feral.
In the case of Abu Ghraib, he suggests the inhuman conditions and work timetable were responsible, in a situation where, for example, it was difficult for either guards or prisoners to distinguish night from day. They became disorientated and dehumanised, and the norms of social evolution unravelled in a matter of weeks. The situation was compounded as many of the American guards lost their sense of purpose and belief in the Iraq mission.
Some would argue that the simple answer to all this is that the guards should not have been in Iraq in the first place. War, and the profession of arms, is innately bad and mad, and should be outlawed, they would say. But humanity has shown an unfortunate capacity for conflict throughout history.
Conflicts like Afghanistan are bewildering in their complexity – Afghanistan itself is currently about six conflicts in one, a very different situation from that into which foreign forces intervened this time round in 2001. Some troops and their civilian colleagues have brought great good, protecting schools and thwarting the practice of child rape and kidnap, the bartering of pre-pubescent brides, warlordism and banditry, with or without the cloak of Talibanism. Things are not likely to improve as the Isaf allies step down and out of Afghanistan. But right now, the good done by this military intervention has been overshadowed by the Panjwai massacre and the disturbing question it poses, summed up by Philip Zimbardo’s core thesis, “Why do good men turn evil?’
Robert Fox is a war correspondent who has covered conflicts in Afghanistan for 30 years.