Afghan Killings By US Soldier: Another My Lai?
U.S. army staff sergeant Robert Bales, who is the suspect in the killing of 16 Afghans including nine children, is now in the US and being held in an isolated cell in a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. NPR reports that Bales was to meet with his lawyer, defense attorney John Henry Browne, for the first time today.
The New York Times has a lenghy account including interviews with childhood friends of the 38-year-old soldier. He is described as a “well-regarded young man who seemed to try to do the right thing,” a high school linebacker who “was gracious enough” to let another, more talented player take his position. Sergeant Bales attended college but did not graduate with a degree and joined the army after September 11, 2001. He was deployed three times in Iraq and saw heavy fighting, and suffered a head wound and lost part of one foot. His lawyer and military officials have said that Sergeant Bales was treated for mild traumatic brain injury and may have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of assault on a woman and been in an accident in which his car overturned. While he had trained as a recruiter, a position that would have enabled him not to be deployed to Afghanistan, the army kept him in the infantry.
Accounts from lawyers, medical professionals, colleagues and friends have offered “competing accounts” about his marriage. Sergeant Bales’ wife, Karilyn Primeau, reportedly wrote on her blog about his disappointment at being rejected for a promotion to sergeant first class and about his being “not happy” about being deployed to Afghanistan. The sergeant had reportedly been drinking prior to leaving his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, described as a “hotbed of Taliban activity” for years that had recently become more secure.
Were the killings that Sergeant Bales accused of the result of his repeated deployments? Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who was an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, makes the point that Sergeant Bales’s case is “emblematic” of some “bigger problems,” namely:
…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.”
“This is equivalent to what My Lai did to reveal all the problems with the conduct of the Vietnam War,” Dr. Xenakis said. “The Army will want to say that soldiers who commit crimes are rogues, that they are individual, isolated cases. But they are not.”
As Tom Bowman said on NPR’s Morning Edition, ”What we’re seeing so far is really a very contradictory picture. A guy who seemed to be a solid soldier, but definitely under some stress.” The Washington Post also suggests that financial struggles were weighing Bales down.
But The Atlantic Wire suggests that the media is reading too much into the details of Bales’s life that have so far surfaced. Kari Primeau blogged about “missing her husband and wanting to have more control over where she lived — some of the most common complaints of Army wives.” Soldiers who are deployed overseas don’t make less but, says The Atlantic Wire, “get extra money — combat pay and separation pay — plus their salaries aren’t taxed, and the soldier has zero expenses — food, housing, clothing are all taken care of.” Media scrutiny over Bales’s life has only “offered a general picture of military life” but sought to say that such is the “environment that created a monster.”
The tragic killings that Bales is accused of happened less than two weeks ago and it is certainly too early to pass any sort of judgement and to have any sort of clarity about what happened. But the larger issues raised by Dr. Xenakis do bear at least considering, especially as the US faces deep strains in its relationship with Afghanistan in the wake of the shootings and other recent incidents involving US troops, and the US insists that it will stick to its schedule of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
What do you think about Dr. Xenakis’ statement that, while “the Army will want to say that soldiers who commit crimes are rogues” and “individual, isolated cases,” this not at all the case?
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