The war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, caused such a high level of combat fatigue and trauma for thousands of veterans and their families that they’d like to forget it once and for all.
Many civilians had already forgotten the war while it was still being waged. For them, it barely registers that nearly 8,500 U.S. troops are still over there, conducting counterterror operations and advising the Afghan military.
From the fog of memory a bitterly familiar name now emerges, stirring up some of the most repugnant images associated with the 13-year war and the vital role that Joint Base Lewis-McChord played in it.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the ringleader of the so-called “kill team” and a blot on the record of JBLM’s former 5th Stryker Brigade, has won a review of his case in a four-day hearing starting Tuesday.
Gibbs was sentenced to life in prison in 2011. An Army jury determined he orchestrated the murders of three innocent Afghans the previous year and staged them to look like legitimate combat casualties.
National news accounts and testimony in a local military courtroom painted a sordid picture of Gibbs:
A collector of fingers he cut from dead Afghans like hunting trophies. A hardened combat veteran ready to plant weapons on corpses, and pose with the bloodied bodies — including that of a 15-year-old boy — he’d killed with his collaborators. A squad leader so Manson-esque in his charisma, he was able to manipulate his hashish-smoking soldiers to do his bidding.
If not for the terrible deeds of Robert Bales, another staff sergeant from a different JBLM Stryker brigade, Gibbs would have executed the worst reported war crimes of the Afghanistan-Iraq era, at least where the local base is concerned. (Bales single-handedly slaughtered 16 Afghan villagers in an overnight rampage in March 2012.)
Soldiers who show contempt for the rule of law by committing atrocities are unworthy of sympathy. But any American who agrees to fight for his country is as worthy as any civilian to seek protection under that same rule of law, from initial charge through full appeals process. That includes Gibbs, Bales and accused Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whose trial is set for April.
For Gibbs, this week’s hearing at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, represents his last, best chance to change his legacy — if not to clear his name, then perhaps to wipe some of the blood and muck from it.
For nearly a year, Gibbs has pursued relief through the Army’s Court of Criminal Appeals. Two of his former Stryker comrades reportedly will now state for the record that at least one of the killings in Kandahar Province resulted from appropriate battlefield action.
“It is a good sign that the court is at least engaged and listening and curious,” Phil Stackhouse, Gibbs’ attorney, told a McClatchy reporter last week.
It also speaks well of the Army that it has a reputable system for putting its own practices and potential errors on trial. One question that will be explored this week is whether some witnesses who testified against Gibbs were improperly granted immunity.
As a whole, the “kill team” case holds up under standards of procedural scrutiny and public accountability. Twelve soldiers were prosecuted and given open courts martial; eleven were convicted, and seven received jail time. The Army investigated the brigade’s command for lapses in oversight and produced a 532-page report, eventually obtained by The News Tribune.
The disposition of that case shines in comparison to how the Navy handled its own embarrassing Afghanistan episode.
In March 2012, three Navy SEALs bound and beat three Afghan men, hurting one so badly that he died the same day, according to a New York Times investigation. U.S. military personnel reported the incident, but it was swept under the rug; a closed disciplinary process substituted for a full court-martial, and two of the SEALs later won promotions.
It’s been said that in wartime, distinguishing right from wrong, black from white, can be hard. But an American soldier who witnessed the SEAL beat-down had no problem doing so.
“You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray,” he told the Times.
The same holds true for Calvin Gibbs and his accomplices. Yes, Gibbs deserves another chance in court his week. But regardless of how it turns out, we’ve been given a clear-eyed look at the evils some people are capable of while wearing a U.S. flag patch on their sleeve.
Remember it well, lest we forget war is hell.
Still, it would be wrong to let the “kill team” stand as the most enduring memory of the 5th Stryker Brigade. That honor belongs to its 56 fallen soldiers whose names are engraved on twin pillars in JBLM’s Memorial Grove.