On Nov. 5 of last year, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist known by his superiors to have job-performance problems and by others in the government to have Islamist sympathies, opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 43 more before he was subdued. Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly ordered a blue-ribbon panel to conduct an investigation into how such an atrocity could occur. Gates emphasized the importance of accountability. "One of the core functions of leadership is assessing the performance and fitness of people honestly and openly," he said. "Failure to do so ... may lead to damaging, if not devastating, consequences."
Demanding accountability is admirable, but it marks something of a change for the modern armed forces. There is a military maxim that a commander is responsible for everything his or her subordinates do, or fail to do. But this has been largely an empty cliché in the post-9/11 era. As Army Lieut. Colonel Paul Yingling noted in a 2007 article in the Armed Forces Journal, "A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank ... As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."
This lack of consequences for failures among senior officers is particularly profound in cases of extreme malfeasance and war crimes. Whether it is the behavior of prison guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or less publicized but sadly numerous cases of murder and brutality committed by soldiers and Marines, the military has punished, often severely, those who committed crimes. But it has spent little energy examining the leadership and command failures that created a climate in which such crimes could occur in the first place.
For the past three years, I have been researching the story of one unit's deployment to Iraq a story that turns on the lack of accountability for the failure to properly handle a murderous, dysfunctional soldier. In late 2005, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division took control of a stretch of land just south of Baghdad that had come to be known as the Triangle of Death. Experiencing some form of combat nearly every day, suffering from a high casualty rate and enduring chronic breakdowns in leadership, one of the battalion's platoons 1st Platoon, Bravo Company fell into a tailspin of poor discipline, substance abuse and brutality. In March 2006, four 1st Platoon soldiers Specialist Paul Cortez, Specialist James Barker, Private First Class Jesse Spielman and Private First Class Steven Green perpetrated one of the most heinous war crimes known to have been committed by U.S. forces during the Iraq War: the rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the cold-blooded murders of her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister.
The crime did not occur without repeated warnings. Grievously out of touch with the reality on the ground, the unit's leadership was either unable or unwilling to recognize just how impaired 1st Platoon was and how serious and imminent a threat to Iraqi civilians Green, in particular, had become. Almost from the beginning of the deployment, Green frequently and loudly declared his desire to kill Iraqi civilians, something he did not even attempt to hide from superiors. In late December 2005, for example, Green had a one-on-one meeting about his mental state with the brigade's commander, Colonel Todd Ebel. A colonel personally counseling a private is, it is worth noting, an exceedingly unusual event. During their talk, Green wanted to know, "Why can't we just shoot them all?" A few days before that, Green had met with Lieut. Colonel Karen Marrs, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, for a combat-stress counseling session. During that meeting, Green declared several times that he was obsessed with killing Iraqis. (One entry that Marrs scribbled on Green's intake evaluation sheet read, "Interests: None other than killing Iraqis.") After these and numerous other similar encounters with senior leaders, Green was almost immediately sent back out on regular combat rotations with little more than a pep talk and a pat on the back.