At what point does our need to understand the horrific acts attributed to Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales deteriorate into a need to absolve?
It is natural to look at the photo of the earnest soldier, to read his biography, to listen to his friends and family and wonder how it could be the same man now accused of war crimes.
The 38-year-old Bales doesn’t provide the cliches that allow many of us to think “no wonder,” not like the former soldier who killed a park ranger at Mount Rainier or the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 and injured dozens more at Fort Hood. The former looked like a still from the movie “Natural Born Killers,” the latter shouted jihadist phrases and had a medical record littered with mental health questions.
See? “No wonder.” We shake our heads at the crimes but are satisfied that it all makes sense in a sick, disturbing way. Yet Bales does not present a package that can so easily be tied with a ribbon and put away. Too many loose ends. Too many disconnects.
So we keep trying to find an explanation, even though the exercise begins to look like a means of excusing what Bales is alleged to have done. In our search, we are at risk of finding a way to excuse him so we can excuse ourselves.
Some of the puzzle pieces raise legitimate issues, especially questions about how many times we can send soldiers, Marines and airmen into Iraq and Afghanistan and not expect it to affect them emotionally.
Once could change anyone. Three, four and five times would change everyone.
Bales saw combat. He saw dead soldiers and civilians. He saw horrific injuries and suffered at least two. Even when there was no fighting, he lived each day with the tension of knowing that death could come at any moment.
But tens of thousands of service members experienced what he did and more. None did what he allegedly did. None left a base in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan near Kandahar province and hunted down civilians he had recently been charged with protecting. None walked a mile and then moved from house to house in two different villages and attacked villagers as they slept. None murdered 16 civilians including nine children. None set some of the corpses on fire. None then calmly returned to base and surrendered.
Instead, nearly all Americans in these two hellacious combat zones do their duty as best they can and repeatedly answer calls to deploy. These are the real heroes, yet these are the men and women who will now face much more dangerous missions because of these murders.
Other excuses are less compelling. He’d been drinking. He might have been experiencing stress in his marriage and his finances. He’d recently been passed over for promotion. He’d spent years at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which will forever be known as “the most troubled base in the military.”
The New York Times even blamed the gloomy weather in Western Washington, giving birth to the new medical condition a fellow newsie dubbed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Bales’ family has hired one of the best defense attorneys around, and John Henry Browne is not a no-comment kind of guy. He called a news conference and went quickly to work casting a narrative most advantageous to his client – four tours, disappointment at being sent to Afghanistan after he thought he was done with such deployments, a past concussion, a fellow soldier’s recent injury.
That’s his job, and it was fascinating to watch him craft his defense strategy for the coming trial.
But others are viewing the rampage through the lens of their own causes, citing it as reason to leave Afghanistan or to increase services to traumatized military personnel. Those are valid points of view though it is a bit unseemly to use the murder of 16 civilians to further them.
In the end, no matter how many times Bales is described as a “good guy” and a “good soldier” who “just snapped,” it must always be prefaced with the phrase “alleged war criminal.”