In 2010, members of a U.S. military unit killed civilians in Afghanistan out of pure bloodlust. Later, they made it look like the corpses had been killed in battle. The stiff sentences that the military court imposed on the perpetrators are justified given these deeds. Regarding the possibility that leader Calvin Gibbs could be free in 10 years, that certainly does not hold true.

The military judges had no other choice but to signal through draconian punishments how unacceptable the murderous behavior of the defendants was. An army that comes under suspicion of protecting its people in this situation and with this — already publicly known — evidence would lose any legitimacy.

One would think so, at least. But it isn’t true. Astonishingly unnoticed by the world — and nearly completely ignored by the U.S. public, WikiLeaks published a large body of secret U.S. documents from the Iraq War in November 2010. And they showed exactly that: an Army that again and again is involved in serious offenses against civilians or deliberately looks away if such deeds are committed by allies. In comparison to the crimes made public, the murders just heard by the military court are insignificant isolated cases. Yet, nothing happened.

It did not harm the U.S. Army. Apparently there is a non-proportional relationship between crimes and image damage; the relation between image damage and military justice, however, is consistent: the greater the public uproar, the harsher the judgments — at least when the charges are limited to the lower ranks. It has nothing to do with the fair administration of justice.