The brutal murder of 16 innocent Afghan civilians by the American soldier Robert Bales seems to have accelerated moves toward the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan. The talk of “honouring our dead” and the slaughter of troops and civilians “not being in vain”, always a completely dishonest argument in any case, is at long last being replaced with the acknowledgment that the war is frankly unwinnable and that it is time to get out (although the complete lack of concern for what happens in the country after NATO troops depart is worrying).
It is horrifying that it has taken an act of such wickedness to force Cameron and Obama’s hands. It’s also interesting that the identity of Bales was so keenly sought by the media.
On the one hand it makes sense. He was the man who killed all of those people and people will want to know who this guy was. But the issue of his ‘responsibility’ for the murders is a more nuanced one. Is Bales the only guilty party here? Or should be looking elsewhere when we point the finger of blame?
In the most recent New Statesman Frank Ledwidge, a former British military intelligence offer, says that Bales
“must take personal responsibility for his actions. The rest of us must reflect on our won willingness to send young men and women into wars such as this, time after time.”
A good summary.
Bales was on his fourth tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea that someone could spend so much time in conflict zones, amidst such utter carnage and slaughter, and not eventually be affected psychologically seems ludicrous. Who knows how any of us would respond in those circumstances? Repeated exposure to armed conflict could eventually dehumanize the most kind and gentle amongst us.
The description of Bales’ neighbours of him as being a “good, fun guy” may well be accurate, but four tours of Afghanistan and Iraq could have changed him beyond all recognition. Something could have snapped, especially when his history is taken into account. According to the most recent Guardian report, it is not as if the warning signs weren’t there or that they couldn’t have been picked up:
“He had been charged with assault in 2002 and asked to attend an anger management course, while in 2008 he is reported to have fled the scene of a car crash……… The question that will be asked now is what happened, not least because Bales is reported to have undergone mental health screening five years ago before being assigned to sniper training…….. Bales, who volunteered for the army two months after the 9/11 attacks, lost part of a foot and reportedly suffered a traumatic brain injury during his three tours in Iraq and had seen a colleague lose a leg in Afghanistan just before the rampage in Panjwai.”
The awkward truth is that the innocent blood spilt by Bales is also on the hands of the politicians who started this ludicrous conflict, the others who refused to stop it when they had a chance to, the numerous sections of the media who acted as cheerleaders for the post 9/11 conflicts, the military bureaucracy who must have known that a fourth tour of duty for anyone was a dangerous gamble and the electorates who have repeatedly failed to demand an immediate end to this madness.
It is also awkward but necessary to accept that this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact the passage of time may throw up even more harrowing accounts of American and British treatment of civilians and enemy combatants than we have knowledge of already.
There is also a growing body of evidence highlighting the significant numbers of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (although didn’t we start learning about this after the First World War nearly a hundred years ago for crying out loud?), something that Bales’ lawyers will attempt to use to stop him from receiving the death penalty.
The brutality in Kandahar is what wars of occupation do to the soldiers (usually wholly, and sometimes deliberately, unschooled in the politics and sensibilities of the lands they are in) doing the occupying, especially when they are expected to go on multiple tours of duty. It has a dehumanizing effect, something that Blair and Bush (who know about as much of military matters and the realities of war as I do) never even considered when they were told by God that sending these people to kill and die was such a good idea.
In that sense, Bales didn’t act alone.