Two stories in the Washington Post on Saturday should be read in tandem for insight into how we might best interpret the recent killing of sixteen Afghan civilians by a U.S. combat staff sergeant. The first, the paper’s lead story, identified the alleged killer as thirty-eight-year-old Robert Bales, a trained army sniper who had served three tours in Iraq before his Afghan deployment and had suffered combat wounds during his overseas assignments. Bales is accused of leaving his base in Kandahar province, engaging in the house-to-house killing spree, then returning to the base and turning himself in. He could face the death penalty.
The Post probes the man and his background in an effort to perhaps shed some light on why a seemingly normal soldier would engage in such a grisly business. The paper quotes Bales’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, as saying Bales didn’t want to deploy to Afghanistan in December, had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his previous deployments and suffered a head injury during one of his Iraq tours. Also, just hours before the killing spree, he had witnessed a friend lose a leg in an explosion.
Inevitably, the Post piece, like other major news stories on the same day, engaged in some speculation on how and why such behavior could emerge in a soldier with a solid record. In 2007, Bales was part of an extensive battle in southern Iraq—later described by army officials as “apocalyptic”—in which 250 enemy soldiers were killed and eighty-one wounded while Bales’s unit experienced no casualties. We learn also, however, that he had been disappointed when he didn’t get promoted to sergeant first class. In Washington state, where his unit was based, he had a record of minor legal infractions, including misdemeanor assault and a one-car traffic rollover.
The Post suggests some veterans’ groups fear Bales’s case will place into the American consciousness an image of “a crazy veteran gone wild.” It quotes an official of the Veterans of Foreign Wars as saying, “The main concern is that we’ll be back where we started with a stigma that all veterans that return are broken in some way.” This was reinforced by a New York Daily News headline: “Sergeant Psycho.” Tom Tarantino, deputy policy director at a group called Iraq and Afghanistan of America, says we are left with “this wired mind-set in the public consciousness and immediately everyone goes to the `Sergeant Psycho’ thing. . . . We need to try to make sense of this tragedy, and it’s extremely difficult to do so. And that’s the problem.”
The problem is that nobody can make sense of such a thing. We will see in coming days and weeks reams of analysis about Bales’s head injury, his post-traumatic stress difficulties, the accumulated anguish of war. There will be accusations against his superiors for not identifying the symptoms that led to such vicious behavior. Indeed, the Post quotes one self-confident psychiatrist who has worked with veterans as stating flatly that this was “a presumptive case of leadership failure.”
None of this speculation and analytical probing will be worth much at all. The search for broader lessons in such warped actions is always futile and often irresponsible. Was it the head injury? The traumatic stress of combat? The inattentive superiors? We’ll never know, and there’s no point in speculating. Certainly, it would be irresponsible to try to assess blame elsewhere for one man who clearly snapped for whatever reason, or perhaps no reason.
But the episode does present an occasion for asking what Sergeant Bales and his fellow combatants were fighting for over the past decade. When his country sent the man back into combat for the fourth time in eight years, what was the purpose, and what had been accomplished toward that purpose through his previous three tours?
For insight into answers to that question, we turn to the second Post piece, by Alice Fordham. Its headline: “Resentment simmers among Iraq’s Sunnis: Country’s sectarian tensions exacerbated by uprising in neighboring Syria.”
The article says that nine years after the fall of its most famous son, Saddam Hussein, the city of Tikrit, in the Sunni-majority province of Salahuddin, “is a decrepit, angry place, and its mostly Sunni population, feeling alienated from the Shiite-led central government, is calling for more independence.” The article presented a picture of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his government engaging in progressively discriminatory policies against the Sunnis and working to “sideline the Iraqiya political bloc, for which most Sunnis voted in 2010 elections.”
Fordham writes that Maliki’s actions are “threatening sectarian co-existence in Iraq at a crucial time for the region.” She raises the specter of a “dangerously factionalized country.” Essentially, Salahuddin and neighboring Diyala province, both predominately Sunni, wish to exercise their constitutional prerogative of breaking off from the Baghdad government to a significant degree and operating under much greater autonomy, much as the northern Kurdistan region already is doing. Whether the Maliki government will allow this is an open question that hangs over the nation like a deadly sword. Fordham doesn’t say it, but some see a deepening prospect of civil war in the country.
As we contemplate the legacy of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, it is worth noting the distinction between this ominous picture of the civic situation there and the heady optimism and idealism that attended George W. Bush’s dramatic decision to conquer that land and liberate it from the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Then many Americans, stirred by the rhetoric of Bush and his retinue, saw a new dawn of Middle East democracy just on the horizon. As Bush famously said in his second inaugural address, the United States aimed to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
How quaint and silly that seems as we contemplate the true legacy of America’s eight-year war in Iraq, with our troops gone now and the country barely managing to avert a bloody civil war—and as we contemplate the almost desperate American effort to leave Afghanistan after ten years with some semblance of stability and peace in that troubled land. Of course, the United States says it must obliterate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and ensure that the Taliban insurgency never regains sufficient territory to provide a safe haven for future al-Qaeda operations. But the old al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden is essentially dead, and the anti-Taliban mission is already a failure, as reflected in President Obama’s efforts to negotiate an accommodation between the insurgency forces and the Kabul government so he can bring U.S. troops home.
Which brings us back to Sergeant Bales and the hundreds of thousands of other U.S. combat soldiers who logged multiple tours in those countries in behalf of a war effort based on mushy ideals and no concrete concept of victory. What is it like, we might ask ourselves, to be sent back into such bloody and chaotic combat situations multiple times in the course of a decade without any end in sight and without a clear definition of what the U.S. fighting effort is really all about?
The pressures and fears and disgusts of such an experience may indeed have contributed to Bales’s bloody rampage. But place that aside as being in the realm of the unknowable and hence not in the realm of worthy exploration. But it is a worthy occasion to contemplate the magnitude of what we are asking of our young military professionals as we send them back, again and again, into combat environments ultimately seen as devoid of any clear and attainable mission concept.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.