Talking heads on TV commiserate on what could explain and might mitigate his crimes. Was he troubled by financial and legal matters that followed him from before he enlisted?
Did he break from the stress of a fourth combat deployment he didn’t expect and did not want?
Did he have a head injury in a prior deployment that can be classified as TBI (traumatic brain injury)?
Did he burn out or go crackers over idiotic leadership decisions, like rules of engagement that sacrifice the safety of our own troops in an effort to win the good will of the populace?
Is there anything to his attorney’s claim of PTSD?
What must be going wrong at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State where Sgt. Bales was stationed?
For defending against the charges, I would postulate none of this matters, for nothing can excuse the wanton murder of non-combatants in a war zone. But we could learn something from this if we open our eyes.
This is what I mean: atrocities happen in all of our wars, on all sides, despite our best efforts to stop them. Those crimes can be a reminder that war is a nasty business best avoided until it is unavoidable, then best ended quickly with overwhelming force instead of drawn out in elaborate schemes to do things like transform a seventh-century stink hole into a stable and secure society.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in a rage Anthony threatens to “Cry ‘Havok,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Anthony meant that once war gets started it is like a release of evil demons from Pandora’s Box, uncontrollable murderous mayhem, savage and chaotic, blood lust feeding on the dark side of its participants.
Unspeakable things happen in combat. While you’re hot, tired, tense, filthy, hungry and weary of carrying 80 pounds of equipment, you get ambushed, your best friend’s guts get scattered on the ground and he cries for his mom and begs you to help him while you hold him and he dies; an enemy soldier feigns bad wounds, then when an American medic takes a risk to help the enemy soldier, the enemy shoots him in the head. The pressure builds, day after day, and sooner or later even the most docile soldier lusts for murderous payback. Overwhelming passion is to be expected, predictable as a normal part of armed conflict, completely human, natural and understandable.
Because we are civilized, unlike some of our enemies we try very hard to manage our demons of war. When we go to war we raise the lid on Pandora’s Box just a little, trying to release carefully selected demons that kill by the rules we set, and we try to hold back the demons of lustful revenge. We keep the worst demons in the Box by applying strict military discipline at all levels of command with officers responsible for anticipating the passions surging through their troops, keeping armed men under control, keeping the lid on the Box, keeping the demons from running amok. We cannot let the blood lust revenge happen, no matter how justified.
But however hard we try, it happens now and then anyway.
We all think of World War II as the “good war,” and censorship at the time kept dispiriting news from the public, but our troops in that war were not immune. In 11 months of the WWII European campaign, nearly 1,000 American GIs were charged with capital crimes, mostly rape and murder. Almost all were convicted and 443 were sentenced to death. Of those, at least 96 were executed. In all theaters of WWII nearly 300 GIs were executed for their crimes.
If you think a few bad apples diminish the honorable service of the vast majority, you would be wrong.
On March 16, 1968, soon after the Tet Offensive, discipline evaporated in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division. As they approached the My Lai hamlet a plan for payback was afoot, retribution for the hamlet’s support to our enemy and the very recent death of some of Charlie Company’s troops nearby. The Platoon Leader, Lt. William Calley, was supposed to recognize the signs in his men and put a stop to it before it started, but Lt. Calley actually led his men in the murder of over 300 civilians, including children and infants. As we discuss in class, there can be no excuses.
Amidst this ghastly act of murder, some troops refused to participate. Others did some shooting then had second thoughts and withdrew. There was one hero there that day, scout helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson. It isn’t always easy to figure out from above what is happening on the ground, but when he realized the nightmare in process, Thompson landed in front of US troops advancing toward a huddled group of civilians and ordered his gunner to shoot any American soldier who refused to stop.
After it was over, how that scale of murder was concealed is a mystery. Someone soon wrote a letter to Americal Division headquarters to report the incident, but a rising star named Maj. Colin Powell did not believe it was true and buried the report. It remained under wraps for about a year before it blew up.
Lt. William Calley was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. With President Nixon’s intervention, he spent less than five months incarcerated, mostly under house arrest. In my opinion Calley should still be rotting in prison, along with his commanders if his claims were true that they ordered the payback at My Lai. But Calley is not in prison, he is your fellow Georgian.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t feel sympathy for Sgt. Bales and his family. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the lousy situation our American leadership has set up to stress our fighting forces to the breaking point.
Of the 2.4 million men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, over 411,000 of them have been deployed three or more times while the rest of us at home pretty much ignore the conflict until TV news gives us a few uncomfortable moments we cannot avoid. While they are dodging bullets and IEDs and enduring the pressures of leaving their family again, we can focus on rebuilding our 401K after market losses and polishing our kids’ credentials to gain entry into the best colleges.
Did you ever wonder how disconnected our own soldiers must feel on returning home from a combat zone as they look around them at the “me” culture we have become and realize America is not at war at all, only our armed forces are at war. We treat them not much different than mercenaries.
When I think of Sgt. Bales, a 38 year old father of two young girls, a man who may be subject to the death penalty, I can’t help but think, “We did this to him.”
Over coffee recently, friends and I agreed that we think of our troops deployed with affection as if they were our own sons and daughters, and that America is not doing right by them. We heap a burden of perpetual combat on them with dubious goals that seem to always withhold the overwhelming force to get the dirty work done quickly. Instead, we drag it out, exposing them to undue pressure and risk in an effort to curry favor with the world.
What have we done in sending our troops to Afghanistan on a nation-building mission, with their combat hands tied, where the populace seems to have the emotional maturity of a five year old, where a decade of American support and sacrifice can be undone by a cartoon or the accidental burning of a book? What brand of impaired judgment leads us to invest our blood and treasure in such a place? I cannot help but believe if our puerile leadership had the unpleasant duty of cutting off a dog’s tail, they would decide to cut it an inch at a time!
Our little think tank does have a long term solution: compulsory service in the armed forces or civilian alternative for all young Americans. As the father of two school-age girls, I believe serving their country would be good for the character development of all our youth, it would promote a lifelong attitude of ownership in our country, it would do Congress and the presidency a world of good to be filled with veterans, it would restore our innate resistance to get involved in a war since our own children would be at risk, and once committed to war we ALL would be at war until the nasty business is done!
Terry Garlock of Peachtree City is a certified financial planner. He flew as a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War, during which he was shot down and severely injured, suffering a broken back and temporary paralysis that ultimately left him an inch shorter. He has been honored with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals and with the Distinguished Flying Cross.