I was distressed to hear a Fox News report this morning…It stated that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said the 38 year old Army staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians “will receive capital punishment if convicted”. This is troubling. The words “may” or “could” were not used. The rhetoric is strong, and the hysteria is widespread.
It is interesting to note that exactly 44 years ago this week, on March 16, 1968, an incident took place in Vietnam. It came to be called the “My Lai Massacre”. According to some accounts, 504 civilian men, women, and children were killed by American soldiers. The two incidents are very different, and do not compare factually…but it should be noted that the principal person charged in the incident was originally sentenced to life imprisonment, then only actually served three years of house arrest. The United States military has not carried out an execution since 1961. There is one soldier currently on death row, Ronald Gray, who received the death sentence for murder in 2008. He is currently awaiting execution by lethal injection for multiple murders committed off-duty and while stationed in the United States in the 1980′s.
I point out these cases to illustrate a point: In the modern era, military capital punishment is rare. Once an investigation has run its course, and the facts are known, a different picture can emerge, often widely dissimilar to the initial reports. In the Afghanistan case, we do not yet know the soldier’s name, or any real facts. Some news reports state that he has been on multiple deployments and previously received a traumatic brain injury. Other reports claim he was under extreme family pressure as well.
We do know this: The soldier was stationed in Afghanistan during a period of high stress for American personnel, during which multiple murders of servicemen were committed by Afghans serving in a position of trust. These Afghans, allegedly outraged by the burning of some copies of the Koran, opened fire on Americans without provocation. It does not stretch the boundaries of credulity to suggest that after weeks of extreme stress, a soldier could lose the ability to differentiate between murderous traitors and innocent civilians. Especially if that soldier has been on multiple deployments, and has received a brain injury.
I am not excusing the murder of civilians by U.S. personnel. I am, however, cautioning the Secretary and any members of the media that rushing to judgement on this matter will not serve the interests of justice. Wild claims that the soldier be tried in Afghanistan are irresponsible, and fly in the face of established military criminal procedure. Premature statements over the likelihood of capital punishment do nothing but dishearten the men and women serving our country honorably and well…the same men and women we send back, time after time, on repeated deployments; sometimes, until they can stand no more.
We don’t yet know what caused this tragedy. We may never have all the answers. It is time to let the investigation proceed, and allow the military justice system to do its job. When the facts are known, there will be time enough to express opinions one way or the other. And at that time, the picture may be quite different. The presumption of innocence does not only exist in the civilian world.