This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
‘I intended to kill them.” That’s all he has to say?
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty Wednesday to massacring 16 Afghan villagers last year, owes humanity some explanation for that atrocity. Single-handedly, in one night, he did incalculable damage to America’s standing in Afghanistan and handed a propaganda bonanza to the Taliban.
“There is not a good reason in the world for why I did the horrible things that I did,” he told the judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Of course there’s no good reason. But how about a bad reason? How about any reason at all?
Bales’ defense team, and a legion of folks opposed to the Afghan war, have tried to turn him into the poster boy of everything the Army has done wrong on that side of the world.
The problem is, Bales’ enormity is an outlier by any reckoning. It has few parallels in all the years since Vietnam.
Innocents suffer and die in war; Sherman was talking precisely about noncombatants when he remarked, “War is hell.” In Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, air strikes have taken the lives of countless bystanders. In battle, soldiers and Marines have killed noncombatants, deliberately in some cases — but almost always in the heat of battle.
But we’ve seen nothing like what Bales did on March 11, 2012. On a quiet night, in the relative safety of an Army compound, he armed himself with a pistol, rifle and grenade launcher; he sneaked off in the darkness to a nearby village, barged into a mud-walled home and gunned down unarmed people without provocation.
Then he returned to base, chatted with a friend, slipped out to another village and did it all over again.
The calculation behind it is reminiscent of the “kill team” — several JBLM soldiers who murdered three Afghan men, apparently for sport, in 2010. But Bales produced a far higher body count in far less time, and many of the bodies in that count belonged to children.
None of the “explanations” offered for the massacre explain anything.
Bales reportedly saw a comrade lose a leg to a land mine. He’d reportedly suffered a concussion in Iraq. He was on his fourth combat tour, stressed and unhappy about it.
Other soldiers might say: Join the club. Tens of thousands did multiple combat tours, saw friends wounded or killed, suffered head injuries or extreme stress.
Bales’ defenses imply that those other combat veterans are likewise primed to massacre children. The fact is, out of all of them, only Bales did what he did.
And we have not, as yet, been given a hint as to why he really did it.
Bales has now been spared the death penalty. In exchange for his life, he ought at least to shed some light on what led him to leave his compound, rifle in hand, that March night.