Shocking, But Not Surprising
(Editorial cartoon by Jim Morin / Miami Herald (March 14, 2012)and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)
Over the past week, more information on the soldier charged with gunning down 16 Afghanistan civilians has emerged:
The soldier suspected of shooting 16 Afghan civilians has been identified as Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a U.S. official confirmed Friday. ...
A 38-year-old father of two, he'd served in the Army for 11 years. He had been deployed to Iraq three times and was on his fourth deployment, this time to Afghanistan.
Bales grew up in the Midwest and joined the Army after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Browne said. He was injured during a previous tour in Iraq when the vehicle in which he was riding was hit by an improvised explosive device, the lawyer said. He suffered a concussive head injury and a wound that caused him to lose part of his foot. [Emphasis added]
Now, given these facts and the fact that like all soldiers he had been trained to kill, his actions, while deplorable, are not all that surprising. Clearly he had been over-deployed. He probably was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his own injuries and from witnessing the injuries and deaths of his own troops. What is surprising is that more such incidents don't occur, or at least are not reported.
It is hard not to find some sympathy for Staff Sergeant Bales and for his family. What a horrible end to a lengthy career, and yet there are those who are outraged at the notion of cutting him any slack:
Talk like that infuriates Fred Wellman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Fredericksburg, Va., who did three tours in Iraq. He said comments like those of Bales' neighbors and his attorney simply feed into the notion of "the broken veteran."
Wellman does not deny that 10 years of war have severely strained the service. But while others might see Bales as a wounded soul, Wellman sees a man who sneaked off base to commit his alleged crimes, then had the presence of mind to "lawyer up" as soon as he was caught.
"That may play well with certain circles of the civilian community, which doesn't understand our lives," Wellman said. "But he's going to be tried by a military court ... and chances are three or four of those guys had things happen to them, may have had three or four tours, may have lost people, may have been blown up. And NONE of them snapped and killed 16 people." He added: "It's just too easy, and a lot of us, we're not buying it."
Oh, please. That's a pretty easy stance for a retired officer to take. The mere fact that the lieutenant colonel used the word "snapped" kind of undercuts his argument, yes?
Others, however, have managed to pinpoint what the real problem is, one that we will be facing for years, perhaps decades:
Benjamin Busch, a Marine veteran of two tours of Iraq, wrote last week on the website The Daily Beast that he and his comrades are afraid to admit that Bales "lost his mind in war," because that "allows for the possibility that any one of us could go insane at any time, and that every veteran poisoned by their combat experience could be on edge for life." ...
The killings sent Thomas L. Amerson, a retired Navy captain from Ledyard, Conn., back to the history books to explore other stains on America's military history, including the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. Too often, he argued, Americans absolve the leaders who start the wars and "invest the full responsibility in the combatants themselves and the families that support them."
"These actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more than a clash of combatants; they have been a clash of cultures, ideologies, and religions that has blurred the lines of right and wrong," Amerson wrote in an email to The Associated Press. [Emphasis added]
I don't know what justice will look like in Staff Sergeant Bales' case, but I hope it is tempered with mercy. I also hope that the case puts more pressure on the military to take the steps necessary to ensure that before deploying an already injured soldier for the fourth time he is thoroughly checked out, more thoroughly than Bales was.
Finally, I hope this country gets to the point where it can finally acknowledge that war is simply not healthy for human beings, that it is the sign of failure that impedes our growth as species. And I hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.