March 22, 2012
As details emerged about the identity of the soldier who allegedly murdered 16 Afghani civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, I called up a college classmate of mine, a physician who for several years had worked part-time in the family-practice clinic at the man's home base, Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. I wanted his opinion about what the U.S. Armed Forces' own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, in 2010 called "the most troubled base in the military."
I was not ready for what he said first.
"I had him as a patient a couple years ago," he told me. "When I saw his picture in the paper, I recognized him. I don't remember what I treated him for, but I recall his face. He seemed like a good guy to me — nothing unusual about him. This thing was a real shocker."
The profile of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, now being pieced together by the media, reveals the same sentiment of disbelief among his family, childhood friends, and fellow soldiers: The person who did this is not the person we knew.
As unusual things go, it is not all that unusual. You see stories more often than you'd like about mild-mannered men who randomly gun down passers-by on the street, and loving moms who drown their kids. What makes this case more unusual than most is its context.
"I don't know if it's the most troubled base," my friend said, returning to my question. "It may be because it's just so big, and it's primarily for the infantry. They're the ones who do the whites-of-their-eyes fighting, and for some of them it's bound to seep out in other ways, both over there and when they get home."
I asked if he had any ideas about Bales' motives.
"Who knows what made him do it?" he mused. "Maybe he thought that committing some unspeakably horrible deed would finally bring the troops home — the Afghanis would demand that the Americans leave, and the American public would demand it too. Maybe he thought he was sacrificing himself for a greater good.
"Or," he continued, "he could have snapped from the paranoia that all the troops feel over there, where they can't ever tell who the enemy is and isn't. The very same people you meet at those friendly town meetings — even women and children — may be just the ones who are triggering roadside bombs. It's not war with uniformed targets and defined battles followed by periods of calm. The soldiers live in constant fear and suspicion. It's no wonder that most of them have some degree of PTSD. The trauma and stress are not so much from battle as from the constant anxiety and uncertainty."
"Plus," I mentioned, "the paranoia for this guy was endless. He went to Iraq in 2003 and returned twice more after that. The papers say that after his third tour he'd trained to be a recruiter but they sent him to Afghanistan instead — even though he'd injured his head and foot his second time around."
"This is a huge problem," my friend remarked. "Back and forth, back and forth. Even when you're home, there's no closure because as long as we're over there, there's no close."
"Then there's the nation-building business, the hearts-and- minds thing," I added. "Trained to kill and trained to heal at the same time — and on the ground there, both are jumbled up together. It isn't like those World War II newsreels of the troops handing out Hershey bars to a crush of happy kids while their parents cheer their liberators. When you pour your energies into trying to do good while you know all along that many of the people there resent your presence and want you gone, that's a frustration that could easily turn to rage. I'd bet most of the soldiers feel it but somehow they sublimate it. This guy didn't."
"War for almost ten years," my friend reflected. "It sickens me. The brunt of it all has been borne by a very small number of people. The all-volunteer military shifts the responsibility for war away from the public at large. If more people had their own sons and daughters drafted into service, they'd have not been so complacent about these wars."
Who knows why Sgt. Bales did it? Even a trial, by its nature, may reveal little of the truth. But there's one thing for certain: In the midst of the war without, he was fighting a war within.