He is accused of the kind of crime that makes people shiver, the killing of families in their own homes under cover of night, the butchery of defenseless children. Under normal circumstances, Americans would dismiss such an act as worthy of only one response: swift and merciless punishment.
Not so in the case of Robert Bales — at least, not for some Americans.
So far, many seem willing to believe that a 10-year U.S. military veteran, worn down by four tours of combat and perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, simply snapped. That somehow there must be, if not an excuse, at least an explanation.
Exactly what set off the Army sergeant accused of massacring 16 civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province is far from clear. But already, organizations and individuals with differing agendas have portrayed Bales as the personification of something that is profoundly broken, and have seized on his case to question the war itself or to argue that the American government is asking too much of its warriors.
On the website of Iraq Veterans Against the War, organizer Aaron Hughes declared that Afghan war veterans “believe that this incident is not a case of one ‘bad apple’ but the effect of a continued U.S. military policy of drone strikes, night raids, and helicopter attacks where Afghan civilians pay the price.” Those veterans, he wrote, “hope that the Kandahar massacre will be a turning point” in the war.
“Send a letter to the editor of your local paper condemning the massacre and calling for an end to our occupation in Afghanistan,” Hughes wrote.
On March 11, authorities say, Bales, a 38-year-old married father of two from Washington state, stalked through two villages, gunned down civilians and attempted to burn some of the bodies. The dead included nine children.
In Lake Tapps, Wash., neighbors knew Bales as a patriot, a friendly guy who loved his wife and kids, and a man who never complained about the sacrifices his country repeatedly asked of him. They find it hard to believe he could be capable of such depravity.
“I kind of sympathize for him, being gone, being sent over there four times,” said Beau Britt, who lives across the street. “I can understand he’s probably quite wracked mentally, so I just hope that things are justified in court. I hope it goes OK.”
Paul Wohlberg, who lives next door to the Baleses, said: “I just can’t believe Bob’s the guy who did this. A good guy got put in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Talk like that infuriates Fred Wellman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Fredericksburg, Va., who did three tours in Iraq. He said comments like those of Bales’ neighbors and his attorney simply feed into the notion of “the broken veteran.”
Wellman does not deny that 10 years of war have severely strained the service. But while others might see Bales as a wounded soul, Wellman sees a man who sneaked off base to commit his alleged crimes, then had the presence of mind to “lawyer up” as soon as he was caught.
“That may play well with certain circles of the civilian community, which doesn’t understand our lives,” Wellman said. “But he’s going to be tried by a military court ... and chances are three or four of those guys had things happen to them, may have had three or four tours, may have lost people, may have been blown up. And NONE of them snapped and killed 16 people.” He added: “It’s just too easy, and a lot of us, we’re not buying it.”
Benjamin Busch, a Marine veteran of two tours of Iraq, wrote last week on the website The Daily Beast that he and his comrades are afraid to admit that Bales “lost his mind in war,” because that “allows for the possibility that any one of us could go insane at any time, and that every veteran poisoned by their combat experience could be on edge for life.”
James Alan Fox, an expert on murder, said Americans can more easily make excuses for Bales because the shootings did not occur here at home.
“Although the victims weren’t soldiers or the enemy, they were civilians, many Americans ... literally distance themselves from this case, because it’s so far away in a foreign land,” said Fox, a professor at Boston’s Northeastern University. “It’s still mass murder, yet many Americans sort of perceive it differently because it is related to a military situation, as opposed to a private citizen who’s murdering other private citizens.”
Even some fellow warriors who deplore Bales’ alleged acts suggest he should not bear all the blame.
Reacting to a New York Daily News headline labeling the then-unidentified suspect “Sergeant Psycho,” Ron Capps wrote an angry piece on Time magazine’s blog site.
“To our elected officials and the people who elected them: this is what you get when you refuse to do what is necessary to create and maintain sufficient military force to fight your wars,” wrote Capps, who described himself as a 25-year veteran who did a combat tour in Afghanistan.
“This means everything necessary up to and including the implementation of a draft. ... The all-volunteer Army was designed as a peacetime force. It was never supposed to carry us through 10 years of war.”
The killings sent Thomas L. Amerson, a retired Navy captain from Ledyard, Conn., back to the history books to explore other stains on America’s military history, including the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. Too often, he argued, Americans absolve the leaders who start the wars and “invest the full responsibility in the combatants themselves and the families that support them.”
“These actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more than a clash of combatants; they have been a clash of cultures, ideologies, and religions that has blurred the lines of right and wrong,” Amerson wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Amerson asked that Americans “hope for the safety of Sgt. Bales’ family and for the ability of his wife and small children to reconcile the person they knew with the one they now face. May they be successful in un-blurring lines that society and courts will, no doubt, fail to distinguish satisfactorily.”