A military panel in the U.S. state of Washington has sentenced U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs to life in prison for killing Afghan villagers for sport and cutting off their body parts as trophies. The case has raised questions about how the U.S. military handles misconduct.
It started as a probe into the use of hashish in a troubled platoon. What followed were grisly revelations of planned murders of Afghan villagers who had their fingers cut off and kept as trophies.
During the court martial, which spanned two weeks, the panel was shown grisly photos of severed fingers, and a corpse with its teeth pulled out.
Prosecutors argued Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was the ringleader who plotted to kill three Afghan villagers in a remote area of Kandahar province. Witnesses testified that grenades and other weapons were placed next to the dead to make the killings appear to be legitimate combat scenes.
Gibbs denied killing two of the villagers. A third, he said, had tried to attack him. In testimony, Gibbs said he cut off fingers to keep as trophies much as a hunter would remove and keep the antlers of a deer.
Platoon members testified Gibbs had disdain for Afghans, described them as “prehistoric” and called them savages who did not deserve to be helped. They also said he led a gang beating of one soldier for reporting the use of narcotics in the platoon.
The image of Gibbs as a hateful killer is not one that exists among many in his hometown of Billings in the U.S. state of Montana. Elementary school employee Mary Mattheis knew him as a child. She told VOA she remembers Gibbs as a well-behaved boy who came from a good family, and she now wonders what may have happened.
“He was always well-mannered and always a nice boy and very polite and kind, and I always remember him for that and always liked him, too. I felt quite disturbed that this would be happening. War is an awful thing, so I imagine he’s had his share of what they can do back there, too, in Afghanistan. I imagine he’s seen a lot, too, that’s maybe done things to him,” said Mattheis.
The killings were among the worst atrocities reported in the Afghan conflict.
The case has received little attention in the U.S. media - and some see that as a sign of war fatigue among Americans. Lawrence Korb was assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress research group.
“Americans want to focus on the problems we have at home. We’ve had the greatest economic downturn since the depression. Americans feel that these people don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them. They just want to basically get home and rebuild the United States rather than rebuilding these societies,” said Korb.
Korb believes the lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan overextended U.S. forces, especially the army where soldiers were subjected to multiple deployments.
“They took in people who shouldn’t have been in the military under normal circumstances, but particularly put into an atmosphere where it’s hard to tell friend from foe, who the good guys and who the bad guys are, what is the end game. You’re asking an awful lot of these young men and young women. So, to the extent that there have been these horrible crimes committed, I think we as a nation are partly to blame,” said Korb.
Gibbs is the highest ranking soldier to be convicted in the case, and there is no word from the army that any of his commanders have been investigated. The Pentagon leadership has been silent on why the rogue atmosphere in Gibbs’ platoon was allowed to go on - even after the father of one platoon member reported the troubles to several officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the home of Gibbs’ 5th Stryker Brigade.
Cases are pending against two other soldiers.