Feature

Afghanistan: What made Sgt. Bales snap?

In three grueling tours of duty in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Bales carved out a reputation as an exemplary soldier who kept cool under fire.

“It was an end no one saw coming,” said Douglas Belkin in The Wall Street Journal. Longtime friends and colleagues of 38-year-old Robert Bales knew him as an outgoing and trustworthy soldier, a devoted husband, and a loving father of two, who joined the Army after 9/11 out of a new sense of duty to his country. In three grueling tours of duty in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Bales carved out a reputation as an exemplary soldier who kept cool under fire. But last week, while on a fourth tour of duty, this time to Afghanistan, Bales snapped. In predawn darkness, he crept away from his military base in Panjwai, walked to a small village, and allegedly slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, shooting and stabbing them in their beds before setting fire to some of their bodies. We don’t yet know for sure what triggered Bales’s rampage, said James Dao in The New York Times, but military officials said Bales’s mind had buckled under the combined stresses of repeated tours of duty, financial and marital problems, and alcohol. His lawyer, meanwhile, is blaming a traumatic brain injury suffered in Iraq. “That’s not our Bobby,” said Michelle Caddell, who grew up with Bales in Norwood, Ohio. “Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

The phenomenon of soldiers “snapping” is “as old as combat itself,” said Brad Knickerbocker in CSMonitor.com. Witnessing fellow soldiers, civilians, and even the enemy being killed and dismembered takes a terrible psychic toll. Just a day before his rampage, Bales had seen a fellow soldier’s leg blown off by a land mine. Bales himself had lost part of his foot during a previous tour in Iraq, said Matthew DeLuca in TheDailyBeast.com, and suffered a brain injury when an improvised explosive device blew up under his jeep and the vehicle rolled over on him. After nearly a decade of sending hundreds of thousands of young men and women into foreign combat, America is just beginning to confront the reality that “war leaves no soldier untouched.”

Actually, Bales had problems before he ever set foot on a battlefield, said Bill Whitaker in CBSNews.com. In 2002, he was ordered to take anger-management classes after he allegedly assaulted a woman. He was later cited for a hit-and-run car accident. And Bales’s “financial problems were much bigger than his legal issues.” He still has a judgment of more than $1 million against him for stealing money from clients in his former career as a financial adviser, had defaulted on a mortgage, and was recently trying to sell a house he could no longer afford. The Army passed him over for a promotion and pay raise last year—a snub that his wife, Karilyn, wrote on her blog had left him “sad and disappointed.”

How easy it would be to blame this atrocity on some obvious defect of character, said David Horsey in the Los Angeles Times. But even if Bales had problems, as most of us do, he was hardly a psychopath when he joined the military. A colleague of his, Capt. Chris Alexander, has asked people to pray for Bales, calling him “one of the best guys I’ve ever served with.” What does that tell us? Since 9/11, our nation has chosen to fight two long wars on hostile foreign soil, and because we rely on an all-volunteer army “the burden of battle has fallen mainly on a tiny number of Americans—men like Sgt. Bales.” We cope with our guilt by putting these professional soldiers on pedestals and calling them “heroes.” Then we send them on “multiple journeys into the hell of war,” from which some cannot come back. Don’t blame the politicians alone; the blame “can be shared from coast to coast,” by those of us who sacrificed nothing while people like Bales “are being pushed to sacrifice far too much.”

Most of us who serve do not become homicidal monsters, said former Marine Benjamin Busch in TheDailyBeast.com. Indeed, “what is truly surprising is how rarely these acts of madness occur and how powerfully most veterans preserve their humanity.” In Iraq, the Marines I commanded and I took great pains—and endangered our own lives—to avoid putting civilians in the cross fire. Yet even now, I am haunted by the death and suffering “I had a hand in delivering.” And that is as it should be. When he allegedly slaughtered sleeping children in their beds, Bobby Bales—small-town football player, warm and outgoing friend, father and husband—“wore an American flag on his shoulder.” The blood he spilled stains all of us, “because we sent him there.”

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