I’ve posted before on the concept of military professionalism and now we have the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Bales is the soldier suspected in the murder of sixteen people in Afghanistan, including 9 children and 3 women.
Beyond the obvious, there are a number of things that trouble me about this case. It troubles me, for example, that Staff Sgt. Bales has been brought back to the United States to await trial. Initially we were told that the military had no place to properly confine Bales in Afghanistan and he was transferred to a neighboring country where apparently the facilities were more appropriate; and then a couple of days later, after the dust had settled, he was brought back to the United States.
What do you think the chances are that he’ll ever be returned to Afghanistan to stand trial for these war crimes? We know that’s what the Afghans would like; and although American service personnel are not subject to the Afghan criminal justice system under a longstanding “status of forces agreement” between the U.S. and Afghanistan, it seems only fair that Bales should stand trial in the country where the massacre took place and where grieving people await justice.
But it isn’t just a matter of fairness, of course. There are legal considerations that need to be taken into account. “Many of the early details provided by military sources about the rampage have not been confirmed, and the case could founder in the courtroom on questions of evidence collected under difficult conditions thousands of miles away, potentially with few of the safeguards that courts in both the military and civilian worlds rely on when it comes to building a trustworthy account.”
Ultimately, the case against Bales needs to be made in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to believe much of a case will be made when those prosecuting it are here back in the United States.
“I don’t know if the government is going to prove much,” defense attorney John Henry Browne told CNN. “There’s no forensic evidence, there’s no confessions.” And what about the witnesses? Have they been interviewed? Will they be willing to come to the United States to testify? Will they even still be alive by the time the case goes to trial?
What troubles me even more is the spin the American news media has been putting on this story ever since it happened, a spin that has been decidedly sympathetic. For example, we’ve been told Bales was a model soldier who saved lives in firefights on his second deployment to Iraq. “He’s one of the best guys I ever worked with,” said [Captain Chris] Alexander, who led Bales on the 15-month deployment. “He’s not some psychopath. He’s an outstanding soldier who has given a lot for his country.”
We’ve been told that Bales had seen a fellow soldier lose a leg after stepping on a buried mine and had suffered a “traumatic brain injury” that could have contributed to his distress; and also that he had also lost part of his foot in another incident.
It’s been suggested that, after three deployments and two injuries, Bales had been promised he would not be returned to the Mideast battlefields. Yet, in spite of those promises, he was deployed to Afghanistan on December 1.
We’re told that what happened is emblematic of bigger problems: an overstretched military battered by 11 years of combat; failures by the military to properly identify and treat its weary, suffering troops; and the thin line dividing “normal” behavior in war from what later is deemed “snapping.” Bales may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to medical personnel interviewed by the media; medical personnel with absolutely no first hand knowledge of Bales or what happened in Afghanistan except that provided by the media.
We’ve been told Staff Sgt. Bales was a family man with a loving wife and two small children; that he had enlisted out of a sense of patriotism after the 9/11 attack; and that he was having financial problems.
And most recently we’ve been told by his lawyer that Bales doesn’t remember very much about what happened after he left his base in Afghanistan and walked more than a mile into the village where the massacre took place.
“He has some memory of some things that happened that night. He has some memories of before the incident and he has some memories of after the incident. In between, very little,” at least that’s what his lawyer, John Henry Browne, says. Of course, we had been told earlier that Bales had reportedly told the soldiers who detained him after the massacre that “I did it.” Funny how memories can play tricks like that.
I assume many or perhaps even all of these things may be true, but it also seems true that we’re being set up for what seems to happen all the time in cases like this. We know Bales will be charged at some point, perhaps as soon as today. Then the case will drag out, first for months, then for years. Eventually a court martial will be convened and we will be told once again about all the problems and issues Staff Sgt. Bales was dealing with in his life.
And then what will happen?
There is nothing wrong with the lawyers for Staff Sgt. Bales trying to generate sympathy for their client. There is nothing wrong with the media spinning a narrative that makes Bales seem like a tragic character. He may well be in some ways.
But where are all of the stories about those who were stabbed, shot, killed and in some cases burned? Nine children. Three women. What do we know about those women? What hopes and dreams did they have for their children? What do we know about the children themselves? Were they playful children or were they already required to spend their days trying to help their families eke out a living in their desperately poor village?
The truth is we know nothing about those sixteen Afghans who were killed, how hard their lives were and how much they may have loved their children and mothers. And we don’t want to know either, do we?
President Obama assures us that we take what happened seriously. You can listen to his remarks here.
“The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered. We’re heartbroken over the loss of innocent life. The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country and it does not represent our military.”
Does anyone seriously believe this?
But let’s not end on a negative note. I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that “discussions are under way for the United States to compensate relatives of the victims.”
Who knows? Maybe if they’re lucky they can count on a new road.
Update: Staff Sgt. Bales was formally charged today (March 23, 2012) with seventeen counts of premeditated murder and six counts of assault and attempted murder in connection with the March 11 massacre of Afghan civilians. The charging statement apparently did not include details of the crimes nor did it account for the larger number of dead being reported (seventeen rather than sixteen).
Update 2: The New York Times is reporting that the United State government has paid the families of the 16 Afghan villagers who were killed earlier this month $50,000 for each of their relatives who died. People wounded in the attacks were reportedly each paid $11,000. The payments are intended to assist the families, not as justice for the losses they have suffered.