Adam's War The Good Boy and the 'Kill Team'
Part 2: The First Murder
Adam's unit was on patrol in a Stryker armored fighting vehicle in the area west of Kandahar. Soldiers dub the vehicle the "Kevlar coffin," because even though it is armored, it isn't really suitable for Afghanistan. It is far too slow for the bad roads and too noisy to remain unnoticed.
The group included Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25 years old at the time, chief and leader of the kill team, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, 22 years old and Gibbs's right hand man, as well as Private First Class Andrew Holmes, at 19 the youngest in the team. They were sitting in Stryker vehicles, and Adam Winfield was in one of them.
Winfield was a Stryker driver, proud to have the job because of the responsibility. He was in charge of the vehicle, steering the heavy, light-wheeled tank along roads full of mines. The life of his comrades was in his hands.
Ahead of Adam, the small village of La Mohammed Kalay was visible among hills and poppy fields. About 2,000 Afghans live there. The region around La Mohammed Kalay is regarded as a Taliban stronghold. Adam's platoon had been given the mission to guarantee security for a meeting between US officers and the village elders.
Gibbs and the others jumped out of the Strykers and surrounded the village. Winfield remained in his seat -- he had to guard the vehicle.
As the men from Gibbs's unit approached the village, they had apparently already decided to kill someone that day. This is what members of the kill team later said to military investigators.
According to investigation records, Gibbs had already given a grenade to his subordinate Morlock that he was to throw during the operation. It was all supposed to look as if Afghans had attacked the platoon and as if the US soldiers had justification to fire back. Gibbs and his people wanted to prepare the stage for a "legitimate kill."
Did Winfield know about this? He must have had some idea, as he sat there in the Stryker. One of his buddies had earlier talked openly about their intentions. Later, Winfield would recall that "Morlock and Gibbs planned the whole thing for a week." He would state in front of the military investigators: "SSG Gibbs told his people that they would get away with it. Then Morlock took PFC Holmes under his wing, got going, and they carried out their plan." Holmes denies that he knew of the plans.
At 9:30 that morning, Gul Mudin, a young farmer's son, appeared. Morlock and five others were providing security for other US troops. Morlock saw Mudin and waved at him to come closer. It was a moment like a thousand others in Afghanistan. Morlock would later testify that the boy probably "just wanted to talk." But Morlock had something different in mind.
Trophy Pictures with a Dead Man
The young Afghan was only about five meters (16 feet) away from the soldiers. Morlock ordered him to lift his jacket so everyone could see that he was not a suicide bomber and was not wearing an explosive vest. At that moment, Morlock allegedly primed the grenade and made the spoon disappear in his pocket. "Grenade," he called out, "shoot him!" It was supposed to look as if the unit was under attack.
Then he allegedly asked Holmes to get ready to fire. That's when Morlock threw the grenade. It exploded close to the boy. Eight shots were fired. When the shooting was over, the Afghan lay dead on the ground.
The Americans ran towards him and cut his clothes open. Morlock stood over the dead body and lifted the boy's head up while his picture was taken. He then ordered Holmes to get his picture taken as well. A little later, according to the investigation records, Gibbs apparently showed the others a little finger. Then he ordered a retreat.
There was a strange atmosphere when the troops got into the Stryker again. The soldiers were in high spirits. Almost as if they were drunk, they told each other their versions of the incident, and gave each other high-fives, just like after a successful football match.
Slowly the picture became clearer. Adam Winfield began to gradually understand what must have happened in the poppy field just outside of La Mohammed Kalay. It was now clear that the unthinkable had really occurred. And then the others showed him their photographs, trophy pictures taken with the dead man. In the middle of this unbearable boasting, Winfield realized that he himself was partly to blame. He was now aware of the unit's deadly secret -- and he sensed that the secret could prove to be fatal for him as well.
He felt miserable and scared afterwards. His bad conscience bothered him for three days. Then he sent an e-mail to his father. "Terrible things are happening here," he wrote. "But I cannot talk about it."
But he would later have to talk about what he knew. In the meantime, the entire kill team has been arrested. A total of 12 soldiers have been charged in relation to this offense and several other incidents, five of them with premeditated murder. Other charges include desecration of corpses, wrongfully possessing visual images of human casualties, drug abuse and assaulting other soldiers.
The military tribunal against SPC Morlock began last week. A key witness, he had agreed to testify against his comrades to obtain a more lenient sentence as part of a plea bargain. On March 23, he received a 24-year prison sentence. It is unclear when the trial against Winfield will begin.
A Story of Good GIs Who Turned into Monsters
The trial is attracting considerable attention in the United States. According to the latest polls, almost two-thirds of Americans do not see the purpose of the war in Afghanistan anymore. Many people see the story of the good GIs who turned into monsters in Afghanistan as another reason why American soldiers should come home as quickly as possible.
And it is a trial that has caused particular anxiety at the Pentagon. The military is mainly worried about the photographic proof of the cruelties of the war in Afghanistan. As well as the pictures depicting the crimes of the kill team, there are also entire collections of photographs showing other victims that were in the possession of some of the defendants. Responding to an inquiry from SPIEGEL as to why the Pentagon was trying so hard to keep the pictures secret, an Army spokeswoman said: "Some of these photographs are of a difficult nature. They should not be published."
Pentagon officers fear that the images of these atrocities could result in another global wave of outrage similar to that prompted by the publication of the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They fear that the relationship between the American soldiers and the Afghan civilian population, which is already tense, could get worse. They also fear revenge attacks against US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan or terror attacks against American facilities.
SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV spent five months researching the story of the kill team. The reporters traveled across the United States from Wasilla, Alaska, to Cape Coral, Florida, and also visited Afghanistan. They were given permission to look at investigation records. They talked to relatives and friends of the defendants, and were able to read their letters and e-mails. And they have the pictures and videos that the perpetrators often took themselves.
SPIEGEL decided to only publish a tiny number of the images, three out of approximately 4,000 photographs and videos, namely only those that are absolutely essential for the story that is being told here. It is the story of a war that started with the best intentions -- to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida, for which a United Nations mandate exists -- but which long ago turned into a different conflict. It is a war where both sides are no longer certain what they are really fighting for. That's why the Islamists of the Taliban can justify raising money by selling drugs, or why the Americans' hatred for those who kill their comrades can be directed against entirely innocent people. It is this war, which has lost sight of its original objectives, that SPIEGEL wishes to document.