U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is charged with 17 counts of murder in an Afghanistan rampage shooting civilians, including children. He is 38 years old, married with two young children and on his fourth combat deployment.
Pundits commiserate on what could explain or mitigate these crimes. Was he stressed by family or financial problems? Was the pressure too much from another combat deployment he didn’t expect and did not want? Did absurd rules of engagement that protect civilians and endanger American troops push him over the edge? Was TIB (traumatic brain injury) or PTSD a factor?
Whatever his attorney might claim, nothing can excuse the wanton murder of non-combatants in a war zone. But we could learn from this if we open our eyes.
Few Americans understand that atrocities happen in all wars despite our best efforts to stop them. War crimes should remind us that war is a nasty business best avoided until it is unavoidable, then best ended quickly with overwhelming force instead of drawn out in elaborate plans, like transforming a 7th century stinkhole into a stable and secure society.
Why can’t we stop war crimes? Well, since they are a natural part of war, we actually do a pretty good job of it.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in a rage Anthony threatens to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Anthony meant that once war gets started it is like a release of evil demons from Pandora’s Box, uncontrollable murderous mayhem, savage and chaotic, blood lust feeding on the dark side of its participants.
Unspeakable things happen in combat. While you’re hot, tired, tense, filthy, hungry and weary of carrying 80 pounds of equipment, your best friend’s guts suddenly get scattered in the dirt and he cries for his mom and begs you to help him while you hold him and he dies. An enemy soldier feigns bad wounds, then shoots the American medic that tries to help him. The pressure builds, day after day, and sooner or later even the most docile combatant itches for murderous payback. Overwhelming passion is to be expected, predictable as a normal part of armed conflict.
We try very hard to manage our demons of war by raising the lid on Pandora’s Box just enough to release carefully selected demons that kill by the rules we set, and we try to hold back the demons of lustful revenge. We keep the worst demons in the Box by strict military discipline with officers responsible for anticipating the passions surging through their troops, keeping armed men under control, keeping the demons from running amok. We cannot let the blood lust revenge happen, no matter how justified.
And yet it happens now and then anyway.
We all think of WWII as the “good war.” Even though censorship at the time kept dispiriting news from the public, our troops in that war were not immune. In 11 months of the WWII European campaign, nearly 1,000 American GIs were charged with capital crimes, mostly rape and murder. Almost all were convicted and 443 sentenced to death. Of those, at least 96 were executed. In all theaters of WWII nearly 300 GIs were executed for their crimes.
If you think a few bad apples spoil the honorable service of the vast majority, you would be wrong.
The Vietnam War was tagged with a reputation for widespread war crimes though it was never true. The foundation of that myth was one egregious war crime at a hamlet named My Lai, an atrocity that was enormously helpful to the anti-war movement bent on portraying the war as immoral.
On March 16, 1968, discipline evaporated in a platoon of Charlie Company, part of the Americal Division. As they approached the My Lai hamlet a plan for payback was afoot, retribution for the hamlet’s support of our enemy in the very recent death of some of Charlie Company’s troops.
The platoon leader, Lt. William Calley, had a duty to recognize the signs in his men and put a stop to it before it started, but Lt. Calley actually led his men in the murder of over 300 civilians, including children and infants, then reported them as enemy casualties. There can be no excuses.
Amidst this ghastly act of murder, some troops refused to participate, others did some shooting then had second thoughts and withdrew. There was one hero there that day, scout helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson.
It isn’t always easy to figure out from above what is happening on the ground, but when he realized the nightmare in process, Thompson landed to block U.S. troops advancing toward a huddled group of civilians and ordered his gunner to shoot any American soldier who refused to stop.
After it was over, there were various attempts to conceal the atrocity, but someone soon wrote a letter to higher-ups. A rising star named Major Colin Powell was tasked to investigate but he did not believe it was true and buried the report. It remained under wraps for about a year before it blew up.
Lt. William Calley was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Controversy over the war and an increasingly anti-war news media portrayed our troops as victims forced to do bad things, and President Nixon, wrongly I believe, intervened on Lt. Calley’s behalf.
Calley spent less than five months incarcerated, mostly under house arrest, though he should still be rotting in prison along with his commanders if his claims were true that they ordered the payback at My Lai. But Calley is not in prison, he is your fellow Georgian.
In the case before us today, Afghan families are mourning their innocent dead and Sgt. Bales awaits a trial. The discipline of high standards prohibiting war crimes must be upheld. There can be no excuse for murder no matter our sympathy with the Bales family, no matter that the American leadership is stressing our fighting force to the breaking point.
Of the 2.4 million men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, over 411,000 of them have been deployed three or more times while the rest of us at home pretty much ignore the conflict until TV news gives us a few uncomfortable moments we cannot avoid. While they are dodging bullets and IEDs and enduring the pressures of leaving their family again, we can focus on the new TV hit SMASH, rebuild our 401K after market losses and polish our kids’ university applications.
Imagine how disconnected and isolated our own troops must feel on returning home from a combat zone, again, as they witness the “me” culture we have become and realize America is not at war at all, only our armed forces are at war, like mercenaries.
Scott Bradshaw, Mike King and I recently agreed over coffee that we think of our troops with affection as if they are our own children, and that America is doing them wrong.
How can we send our own people to combat time after time in wars of discretion while we downsize the fighting force and the rest of us contribute nothing?
Why would our leadership commit them to a nation-building strategy in Afghanistan, a hostile setting where we won’t let them use overwhelming force but are willing to bet their lives to win the hearts and minds of people taught by their religion to hate us?
What brand of impaired judgment leads us to pour out American blood and treasure on behalf of a people with the emotional maturity of a five year old, where a decade of American support and sacrifice can be undone by a cartoon or the accidental burning of a book?
Disparity of sacrifice in America calls for a radical change. Our little think tank has a long term solution — compulsory service in the armed forces or civilian alternative for all young Americans.
As the father of two school-age girls, I believe serving our country would be good for maturing and character development, promote a lifelong attitude of ownership in our country, improve Congress and the presidency with veterans’ perspective and restore our innate resistance to becoming involved in wars our own children will fight.
With the equity of sharing the burden reinstated, once committed to war we ALL would be at war until the dirty work is done.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Bales must be held to account for his deeds while other American troops are doing their difficult duty honorably.
You may not see in the news the name of Spc. Dennis Weichel of the Rhode Island National Guard, but you should, because this father of three risked his life recently to rescue an Afghan little girl from an oncoming heavy vehicle; he was run over and died of his injuries at age 29.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org For info on his book see www.garlock1.com.]