Commentary Magazine


How the U.S. Military Polices Its Own Ranks

Anyone who follows the U.S. Army, or the war in Afghanistan, cannot fail to be horrified by reports of atrocities committed by a few soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan. If news accounts are accurate, a few soldiers decided to randomly kill Afghan civilians for sport. “Military documents allege that five members of the unit staged a total of three murders in Kandahar province between January and May,” the Washington Post writes, adding, “Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.”

Awful as they are, these atrocities sound mild by comparison with countless other war crimes. Hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in the My Lai massacre. Even greater numbers of Algerians were randomly gunned down by French forces during the Algerian War of Independence in retaliation for grisly attacks on French civilians. The Russians in Afghanistan made a practice of targeting the civilian population — for example, by distributing booby-trapped toys. This is no way meant to be a defense of a few sick soldiers who deserve to have the book thrown at them if half of what is alleged is true. But some sense of perspective is necessary insofar as the Taliban and others will no doubt exploit this case to paint all American soldiers as murderers and torturers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the conduct of U.S. forces is exemplary by any standard. Their respect for human rights and the laws of war is equaled by few, if any other, military forces thrown into the maelstrom of a vicious insurgency.

Clearly there was a big problem in the 5th Stryker Brigade — something that I saw for myself when I visited the unit last year in the field. I had no inkling of such murderous abuses but the brigade seemed to be off-track in terms of their tactical doctrine, concentrating on hunting down insurgents rather than on winning the trust of the people, and relying too much on high-tech gadgetry. In doctrinal terms, they were pursuing “counterguerrilla” rather than “counterinsurgent” operations.

But there has been no suggestion that the brigade’s leadership, or the army in general, countenanced anything like these abuses. In fact, as usual with such excesses, it was military investigators who uncovered the wrongdoing. Perhaps, as the account by the Washington Post suggests, the military did not respond fast enough to alarms raised by a soldier’s father; if so, that situation needs to be corrected. But once military investigators get on the track of incidents like these, they are normally relentless in building a prosecution — so much so that, sometimes, innocent soldiers get put in the dock. That, too, is to be regretted. But, in general, the U.S. armed forces take such misconduct with the seriousness it deserves — something that cannot be said of all, or even most, militaries, the Israel Defense Forces being a rare exception. Of course, neither the U.S. armed forces nor the IDF can expect any thanks for their scrupulousness about observing human rights; predictably, they get pilloried as monsters while far more monstrous forces (including the enemies they fight, whether the Taliban or Hezbollah) get a pass in global news coverage.