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Afghan stories—What happens when a charismatic Sgt turns into "a hater"

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We've been covering the recent Afghan murder spree — the horror of the massacre and the question of the number of troops involved.

The latest face-off has an Afghan parliamentary inquiry finding that 15–20 soldiers were involved (based on numerous eye-witness interviews) vs. the U.S. military (and most of the press) holding to a "lone gunman" explanation.

I've also written that until the multiple-troops story is debunked, simple assertions by the U.S. military don't carry sufficient offsetting weight.

Let's now consider, in general, the situation of an Afhgan-based platoon when one of its sergeants has gone over the edge, become "a hater" (in the words of another sergeant who "wanted nothing to do" with him).

This story, from the American Scholar, will set you back. Its title:

Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace
Traveling with U.S. troops gives insights into the recent massacre
You can see where it's going, and what its value is. It contains both mitigation and indictment. I'll reprint the mitigation. The indictment I'll discuss, but you should read it for yourself — I don't want to put the detail in these pages.

First, the mitigation, from near the middle (my emphasis everywhere):
Since 2006 I have written off and on about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly all of my work in those countries has been done embedded with NATO, mostly American military units. Many times I have watched soldiers or Marines, driven by boredom or fear, behave selfishly and meanly, even illegally, in minor ways. In a few searing moments I have wondered what would come next, what the men would do to prisoners or civilians or suspected insurgents. And I have wondered how to describe these moments without reporting melodramatic minutiae or betraying the men who allowed me in.

Most soldierly stupidity does not amount to crime; most soldiers never commit atrocities. U.S. soldiers shooting at goats, for example, or pilots getting drunk on base, or guards threatening the lives of prisoners, all things I have seen, defy military rules and erode efforts to win hearts and minds. But how bad is it, really? Do we care? ...

We tend to ignore such problems unless they are connected to a crime. ...
Now the indictment. The bulk of the essay describes the writer's time embedded with a platoon he calls "Destroyer". Among the sergeants is a man he calls "Givens" and describes thus:
He was in his mid-20s, charismatic and quick, a combat veteran. He threw down declarations like a hip-hop star—respect yourself and no one else; f**k bitches, get money—and the younger infantrymen revered him. Even officers appeared to defer to his humor, efficiency, and rage.

Platoons are often structured like high school cliques, and Givens stood at the apex of his, setting the tone and example. A list of characteristics scrolled through my mind as I listened to the men, traits I probably learned from episodes of Law & Order, or Lord of the Flies. Pop-culture sociopathy. Sexualized aggression. The displays of wolves.
There are tales of what Givens and his men do during house-to-house Taliban searches (which turn up nothing). The behavior will not be described here, but it's bad enough that the Afghan soldiers working with them... first tried to stop them, then grew angry, sullen. ... I imagined the Afghan soldiers standing by, helpless, while Destroyer destroyed. I thought of attacks over the past several years in which Afghan policemen or soldiers had suddenly turned on their NATO allies and opened fire. Such betrayals have been increasing.
Do read to see just what those Afghan soldiers were forced to witness.

This is not an indictment of all U.S. troops — far from it. As I mentioned, some of the other sergeants would have nothing to do with "Givens" and almost hated him. But the writer also makes clear there is more than one Givens serving in Afghanistan:
I have heard [Given's] words [which I will not quote] in many variations, from many American combat troops. But he and some of his men were the first I had met who seemed very near to committing the dumb and vicious acts that we call war crimes.
About the Given's quote alluded to above — it's the most startling sentence in the piece. If you want to see it, go here. Steve Hynd uses it as his title, in his own examination of this remarkable American Scholar essay.


(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)

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