Sunday, April 17, 2011
(Top, Tom Berenger as Staff Sergeant Barnes in Platoon; above, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the Afghan kill teams)
Those of you who saw Platoon will remember that the most compelling character in the movie was Staff Sergeant Barnes, the ferocious sociopath played by Tom Berenger. Berenger made Barnes' machismo charismatic, but there was also no doubt that Barnes was a sociopath. At one point Barnes kills an elderly woman in a village he suspects of being sympathetic to the Viet Cong; later he kills another sergeant (Willem Dafoe) who had reported that earlier killing to a Captain.
The recent Afghan kill team scandal referred to in the previous post has its own real life version of Barnes: Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. The following article from the NY Times outlines the case against Gibbs, both for his war crimes and his sociopathy:
Gibbs showed many of the classic hallmarks of sociopathy. He is described as the ringleader of the kill team which staged fake combat situations in order to justify killing civilians, and posed for grisly photographs (see post below) with their victims. The word "ringleader" often has sociopathic connotations: it means chief manipulator, chief enforcer of a twisted group ethic, and bully whom everyone else fears and acquiesces to because they sense he will stop at nothing to get his way.
Gibbs was certainly a manipulator. At 6' 4" and 220 pounds, he had the physical presence to be intimidating. According to one of the soldiers in his unit, he mocked them for not meeting his standards for soldiers: "He told me that the type of soldier he was looking for was the type who could kill anybody without any regret." When that soldier responded that he could not kill someone without cause, Gibbs reportedly responded, "And that's why you'll be stuck in the truck the whole time. The guy I'm looking for is the guy that would shoot the dude just because he could shoot the dude."
The implication, of course, is that if you're not that guy, then you're less than a man. Young men are particularly susceptible to the kind of manipulation which takes dead aim at their masculinity, and sociopaths instinctively know how to take advantage of this. As a big, handsome, charismatic risk taker himself, Gibbs was perfectly suited for this role. (Gibbs' last sentence, by the way, is actually an accurate self-assessment.)
Gibbs reportedly discussed how he could kill one of the soldiers in his unit who he was afraid might report the staged deaths of civilians. As a sociopath, he would have felt no more compunction about this than he had about killing those civilians.
Gibbs reportedly collected fingers as trophies. This is typical behavior for serial killers, who often like to keep driver's licenses, jewelry, underwear, or even body parts as mementos.
Gibbs had a number of people stick up for him, but sociopaths always have people like that, people who have only had a limited snapshot of his behavior and who are swayed by his personal charm. One childhood friend who became a Marine himself but who hasn't seen Gibbs since 2006 said, "People get messed up in the head [during combat missions]. But not Calvin. He was always a rock."
That friend was actually right, but in a way he didn't realize: ordinary people will be greatly affected by the brutality, bloodshed, and overall horror of war. Seeing friends die will leave most people very shaken. But since sociopaths feel absolutely zero sympathy for others, they will not be likewise affected. A sociopath is, as Gibbs' friend pointed out, more like "a rock."
In fact, a certain kind of sociopath has a taste for taking human life: he will use war as an excuse to indulge his own bloodthirsty instincts. Gibbs was one such.
After my son got up to Alaska this past fall and was put together with the other eight guys who will comprise his squad in Afghanistan, I asked him if there were any sociopaths in the group. (Being my son, he has a pretty good feel for what they are.)
He said no.
Thank goodness for that.