maybe make some change


Ten years ago today, on October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and has maintained a troop presence and military operations there ever since.

In those intervening years, the war in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq have become abstract unrealities, a line item in an unbalanced budget, dim noise in the background of a growing unease about the future. The war has been chronically underreported in the media: the linked article suggests that a decade into the Vietnam war there were ten times as many journalists on the ground covering it as are based in Afghanistan today. In a piece for The Nation last year called "Forgetting Afghanistan", Gary Younge described Americans' engagement with the war there:

"The American people, it seems, are bored with war. Like a reality show that's gone on too long, it ceases to shock, shame or even interest. In September [2010], when pollsters asked what the most important problems facing the country are, just 3 percent mentioned Afghanistan. The conversation has moved on; the trouble is, the troops haven't."

One of the consequences of this war left to fester was the series of sport killings of Afghan civilians that took place in the first half of 2010 by a group of young American soldiers. After I first heard about this story I couldn't stop thinking about the accused soldiers. While the victims remained unknown, their lives invisible to western technology and their culture rarely understood by western minds, the soldiers all had Facebook profiles, Flickr accounts, and digital echoes of lives that seemed shockingly normal. What leads ordinary people to do horrific things? The more research I did about their backgrounds, the situation in Afghanistan, and other soldiers in other wars, the more I felt compelled to do something to share this story, as much as nobody wants to hear it, as much as we wish we could just move on.

Some extensive (if late) coverage of the story behind the killings can be found in two March 2011 pieces by Rolling Stone and Spiegel Online. Both pieces focus on the relationship between Calvin Gibbs, leader of the platoon and accused mastermind of the killings, and Adam Winfield, a young soldier under his command. In May 2010 Calvin ordered Adam and several other soldiers to fire on an unarmed Afghan, the mullah of a village called Qala Gai, as part of a premeditated plan to shoot civilians for fun. Mullah Abadhdad was at least the third victim murdered in this fashion: a previous victim was a fifteen year old boy. Calvin then reportedly planted a grenade under the body and detonated it, in a plan to make the death look like part of an insurgent attack. The mullah's wife, when tracked down months later by reporters, described the scene like this:

"I rushed out of that inner room and out the gate and the translator was telling me to stop, but I did not pay any attention, and then I saw my husband, my husband was burning."

Adam Winfield, in the Facebook chat log excerpted at the conclusion of this piece, had previously told his father about the killings, saying Calvin (nearly a foot taller and twice as heavy as him) had threatened to kill him if he told anyone what was going on. Adam's father tried unsuccessfully to get anyone in the government or military to take the claim seriously. The killings continued until they were accidentally exposed in a fight over smoking hashish months later.

Our human tendency to want heroes and villains colors all news coverage of the killings: the Rolling Stone piece, for instance, portrays Adam as a coward who failed to stop the atrocities he knew were happening, while the Spiegel article paints him as a whistleblowing hero who tried to do the right thing even under threat of death. I can never know what happened and continues to happen in Adam's mind, but this piece, maybe make some change, is about how I imagine the moment before deciding whether to obey a questionable order to shoot someone in a war zone must resonate: the countless times you'd have been told beforehand how it would go down, the countless times you'd replay it in your head afterward, and the spin a thousand people with a thousand different intentions would put on it in the years to come.

None of us can know what Adam Winfield went through, or Mullah Abadhdad's wife. But we can't stop trying to know.

Aaron A. Reed
October 7th 2011
(home page)

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notes and acknowledgements

maybe make some change is presented in two versions: a web-based version compatible with several major browsers as of 2011, and a version for the more stable Glulx virtual machine.

maybe make some change, while inspired by Adam Winfield's story, is a work of fiction, although one I have researched to the best of my ability. The characters and scenarios portrayed in the vignettes are fictional, although inspired by Adam's story and a number of recent incidents in his life at the time of the killings, such as the beating of Justin Stoner and the recent high death toll in the 5th Stryker brigade.

The piece uses a number of multimedia sources. Playing in the background is gameplay footage from first-person shooters set during real or near-real wars, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Bad Company and Bad Company 2, Medal of Honor, Soldier of Fortune: Payback, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source. My point by their inclusion is not to attack these games but to note that for a significant percentage of Americans these often consequence-free portrayals of war are by far the dominant ones in their lives.

Also in the background are still images from web-based media coverage of the killings, advertisements and comments found on these pages, and failed web searches for the victims and places involved in the Maywand district killings (rural Afghanistan is largely invisible to the internet, and unstandardized transliteration means the same name can be rendered in many different ways with English characters, further camouflaging the people and places involved). Background audio is a mix taken primarily from an audio recording of a war protestor (recording by IM Rawes/London Sound Survey) and field sounds of a rocket attack alarm in Afghanistan (recording by koenbram). The speech samples played at the beginning of each vignette are taken from three sources: an ABC Brian Ross Investigates special report on the killings, which includes an interview with Adam Winfield's parents; Army interviews with several soldiers where they first confessed to the killings; and audio by photojournalist Max Becherer released after the killings were made public, documenting a visit by members of Adam's platoon to Abadhdad's village after the killing where the soldiers attempt to convince village elders that the murder was justified.

The media used in this piece, whether or not under the Creative Commons license, is the property of its respective owners, and I believe its inclusion here to be fair use for nonprofit criticism and comment under the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. Sec. 107.

The version of the Facebook chat log between Adam and his father presented at the piece's conclusion has been condensed and combined from several sources. A full version of this log had not been released online as of the time this piece was completed, and may not exist. An apparently unedited extract from Harper's contains most of the material presented here, although is missing major portions cited in other news stories, such as Spiegel Online's coverage. Nearly all online sources appear to have been copy edited for clarity: in a few cases, I have changed the spelling or punctuation in my version from the published sources to make them feel more like IM conversations usually do. In one case I have substituted a line from later in the chat that explains something in greater detail than the original line. However, none of the words used by Adam and his father were changed.

This piece was created as part of a Master of Fine Arts degree in Digital Arts and New Media at the University of California Santa Cruz. It was originally presented alongside a companion piece exploring the same story using augmented reality called what if im the bad guy, under which name "change" was exhibited in an early form at the 2011 IF Demo Fair in Boston. My thanks to my professors, fellow students, colleagues, and friends for technical, creative, and emotional assistance during the development of this project. Thanks to Andrew, John, Kathleen, Mike, Peter, and Victor for help with testing.