The drumbeat has already started, and I want it to stop.
The moment the horrific news that a U.S. soldier had gone on a rogue killing spree in the far-away province of Kandahar, Afghanistan — murdering 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, and then burning some of the bodies — America has been struggling to make sense of it. What could have caused the accused, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the married father of two, to commit such a heinous act of multiple murder?
In the days since we first heard the news, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read or heard the sentiment that somehow the culture or conditions within our U.S. military made him do it. Or that the military “taught him to kill.”
Look, war is hell, and since America has now endured more than a decade of nonstop wars, maybe it should come as no surprise that this has been the knee-jerk reaction — blame the military. But that’s a specious conclusion as we look for reasons why Bales did the indefensible. The military doesn’t create monsters. It welcomes and trains patriots willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our country and devises plans to carry out dangerous missions most of us can’t even imagine.
More than a half-million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unlike past conflicts, they volunteered to be there. More than 50,000 of these loyal warriors have endured four or more deployments just like Bales. But not one of those other soldiers went out in the dead of night and committed mass murder.
The military does not decide when our country goes into battle. It doesn’t pick our enemies, and it no longer drafts unwilling soldiers into its ranks. All the big decisions about war lie with the president and Congress. The military simply follows the orders it gets from above. Is it a perfect institution? No. (I’ve been especially appalled at the way female soldiers have been treated.) But I’m at a loss to point out any government institution that is perfect.
I don’t know what made this 38-year-old veteran soldier do what he did, and so far no one else does either. In fact, Bales’ defense attorney has said his client has no memory of the slaughter, so we may never know what made this soldier act with such unconscionable viciousness.
I’ve read that before he enlisted, Bales had several run-ins with the law, including a DWI arrest, involvement in a hit-and-run accident and a misdemeanor assault charge. The most shocking behavior, to my mind, was the finding of an Ohio arbitration board that concluded Bales had bilked an elderly couple out of their entire life savings while working for a brokerage firm. The 70-something victims have said they have never received a penny of the $1.4 million settlement Bales was ordered to pay them.
Maybe joining the military shortly after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks was Bales’ way of putting distance between himself and that obligation.
More recently, Bales and his family had more money troubles. Their house in Tacoma, Wash., went into foreclosure, and he was upset, according to his wife, that he had been denied a promotion that would have brought in a few extra hundred dollars each month. Bales sustained a couple of combat injuries — to his foot and a suspected traumatic brain injury — but he was cleared for duty by military doctors.
I recite these facts to illustrate that despite all the kind things his relatives, friends and teachers are saying about him now, one fact is clear: The troubles in Robert Bales’ life were self-inflicted and not created by the U.S. military.
There seems to be no question that Bales committed multiple cold-blooded murders and that he suffered or is still suffering from some massive mental break with reality. Whatever defense his attorney presents for him will be all about sparing a sick man’s life and not getting him acquitted of the charges.
As we watch the case against Bales proceed, consider this: His actions not only snuffed out the lives of 16 people, they tainted the entire U.S. military as well. Bales left every other active duty U.S. soldier in that region with the extra daily burden of proving they are not vicious killers themselves. In that area of Afghanistan, where anti-American sentiment has palpably increased since the murders, Bales has literally helped paint a target on the back of his former comrades in arms.
This isn’t the fault of the military. This was a horrible crime of one man — albeit a loving husband and father — who had a history of making bad judgments. Whatever happened inside his head does not define the United States of America.