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A Good Soldier Gone Bad

Demanding answers from a war criminal

By Neil Shea | June 12, 2013
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in August 2011(United States Army photograph by Specialist Ryan Hallock/28th Public Affairs)
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in August 2011(United States Army photograph by Specialist Ryan Hallock/28th Public Affairs)


Little more than a year ago, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales would have been called a hero. He had deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, seen combat, seen friends maimed, been injured himself. After each tour parts of him probably shifted, certain lights within him fading, and at home his life gave sign of the ailments that often follow repeated tours, including problems with alcohol and money. He was not perfect, but he had done what his country asked. In the generic way a nation offers thanks, he deserved them. In the thin way we talk about war, thousands of other troops share his story.

Last week Bales became the most notorious living war criminal in the United States, after William Calley, when he pleaded guilty to murdering 16 Afghan civilians, most of them women and children. Before a judge, Bales admitted that on a March night in 2012, he had entered his victims’ homes, shot them, and lit some of them on fire. He offered no remorse, no explanation.

“There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.

In exchange for his confession, Bales will avoid execution. He’ll be sentenced to life but may still be allowed the possibility of parole. His plea deal is frustrating. Not because he should hang, but because we must understand his mad collapse. Against the belt-sander of combat and homecoming and returning to war, most troops bear it all without breaking. Why, then, did Bales snap? I worry his plea will cancel the search for answers.

Without the heat and light of a trial, it will be easier to forget Bales, slide him into a footnote. Americans long ago tuned out the war and so might prefer him to vanish. The military also likely foresaw no benefit in the public dissection of a man whose life mirrors that of many in uniform. But it would be dangerous to dismiss Bales or to simply lock him away and forget him, as some suggest. Bales may have acted alone, but scores of others daily endure the same corrosive, cyclical combat deployments that delivered him to ruin.

Last spring, I wrote in the Scholar about soldiers I spent time with in Afghanistan, who I believed were coming undone as a result of that process. Like Bales, these men had deployed several times. Like him, they had seen friends wounded and killed, and many of them had come to despise the locals they were supposed to win over. Each day the soldiers steeped in aggression and low-grade violence, all of it intensified by the schizophrenic nature of our invade-and-dither warfare.

I wrote that their switches were fraying, their ability to employ violence and then play for hearts and minds—to separate necessary and good from excessive and bad across years of enervating deployments—was breaking down. One day I listened to a staff sergeant complain that he could not execute a prisoner. He said it several times, staring at a bone-thin Afghan slumped beneath a tree a few feet away.

“The only reason he’s still alive is because the United States of America holds 25 to life over my head,” he said.

This young man was a leader, an example to even younger men. Bales had been, too. At least fear of punishment restrained him. Not so Bales. Less than two weeks after my story was published, Bales stalked off his base, crossing before sunrise the void between hero and monster.

The soldiers I wrote about were angry and mean but broke no major laws in my presence. Perhaps their greatest crime was knowingly and gleefully “making Taliban,” turning Afghan civilians into enemies. Such behavior, and the mental state behind it, sabotages missions, endangers comrades, and threatens civilians at home and abroad. It is a betrayal of principles that Taliban and Al Qaeda propagandists smartly profit from, as they have from Bales’s crimes.

No fixed point exists at which troops “go Bales.” Most never commit atrocities. This does not mean they remain unscathed by their experiences. The psychological effects of repeated combat deployments are invisible, up to a point. The nation owes its troops and its veterans more than crossed fingers, and before they can be healed, we must decipher Bales.

A trial would have helped. Bales’s lawyers assert that beside the strain of repeated deployments, he suffers from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. The prosecution and the defense would doubtless have examined these wounds—for the first time in a major case. Testimony would have reminded us that the military, and by extension the nation, has a mixed record on caring for its veterans, particularly when it comes to unraveling the psychological effects of war. Of course, the military isn’t keen to do this. The results would hint at something enormous and expensive, an iceberg’s hidden bulk. But the military should not slip into the willful ignorance it often prefers when faced with big problems. Just consider the ongoing scandal over sexual abuse within the ranks.

Bales may yet offer a statement at a sentencing hearing scheduled for late summer. Let’s hope for something beyond simple contrition and tearful apology. The nation made a deal, and now it must care for him. But he must also cooperate with us. We should map his path to extreme violence and employ the findings to help other veterans who, every day, recede a little further from our war-weary view.

It’s tempting to see Bales’s case as a metaphor for Afghanistan’s slow, painful dissolution. A courtroom drama would have been ugly. In effect, the wars and all their consequences could have been called to account, and the questions asked of Bales, echoing over the past decade, may well have indicted all Americans: How did this happen? Where were the people in charge? Why did it go on so long?

In war it costs nothing to grant the title hero; it is painful and humiliating to revoke. Bales’s fall should encourage reflection. Last week, quietly confessing to a judge, even he seemed capable of that, providing a melancholy glimpse of the good soldier he once had been.

Read Neil Shea’s Dispatches from Afghanistan

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