Killings and misconduct by U.S. soldiers: An American citizen’s introspection – by Rusty Walker

The common theme for a decade has been, “Why do they hate us?” Aside from one invasion (Iraq)  and another UN-sanctioned but badly botched NATO sanctioned operation (Afghanistan), U.S. alignment with the oppressive Saudi regime, erroneous funding of enemies through mismanaged USAID, can be added to the recent string of “mishaps” by American soldiers. Ghastly incidents like SSgt. Bales’ murders, reflects on all of the good and well-intentioned troops, as well as illuminating our bad ones; and in some cases, produces cynicism in young impressionable soldiers deployed abroad for too long; certainly for any decent person, there should be admitted embarrassment for American reputation in light of events I have covered here, or, the alternative is denial over egregious acts committed.

Unfortunately there will always be ignorant individuals that are prejudice against people different from themselves, whether, faith, color, sexual preference, or nationality. But, for those who would characterize the SSgt. Bales’ My Lai-like (Vietnam) slaughter of innocents as something to do with American “rampant anti-Muslim propaganda,” or “Islamophobia,” I doubt that is the case – given that muslims still prefer the United States as one of the choice countries to migrate to as opposed to say, Saudi Arabia.  Also, the U.S. military does not promulgate hate-messages.  If there are unfortunate aberrations, rest assured they do not go unquestioned by those of us who have served in it.

The complex events within Pakistan have more often been my theme, but, in view of the recent U.S. soldier’s mishap of Quran burning, outrageous and indecent acts by a few American Marines caught on video Youtube, and the grisly, multiple murders of innocents by an American Army soldier, I am compelled to address this for Pakistani and South Asian readers from an American point of view in an attempt at some sense of fairness and balance.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, has been charged with a shooting frenzy in two villages near his Southern Afghanistan military post. The 38-year-old soldier accused of shooting adults and children as they slept, is the father of two young children.

In the United States the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That said, in the early hours of March 11, 2012, evidence appears to confirm that Staff Sgt. Bales, in an act of cold blooded murder, killed nine Afghan children and eight adults while they were sleeping in their homes. Included in the shocking slaughter is evidence that he had burned some of the victims’ bodies. All the details have not yet emerged in the case, but Bales has been charged with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder for attacking two other adults and four children and six counts of aggravated assault, dereliction of duty and other violations of military law.

U.S. officials have stated that SSgt. Bales left the base virtually unnoticed the first time armed with his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher. He made the first unauthorized trip to Balandi village for the initial killings. Bales apparently broke into the village homes, and opened fire on the families inside. U.S. investigators have visual accounts suggesting that Bales carried out the premeditated murders in two episodes, slipping off the base a second time murdering civilians in the second village of Alkozai before again heading back toward the base. Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings reported that an Afghan guard working the first nightshift on March 11 identified a U.S. soldier returning to the base around 1:30 a.m., while a second guard working the following shift spotted a U.S. soldier departing the base at 2:30 a.m.; An aerial surveillance video was taken by a security blimp located over Camp Bellambay shows Bales in a prone position attempting to sneak back to base without detection after the second attack. It was while he was returning the second time that a U.S. military search party spotted him. He is reported to have surrendered without a struggle. The gruesome sight of dead bodies were later discovered in one village north of the base and one village south of the base, in Kandahar’s Panjwai district. This sequence of trips would support the U.S. government’s contention that the killings were committed by one soldier. The motive at this point in the investigation is unknown, but elicits bewilderment at the personal rage that must accompany such a slaughter.

Staff Sgt. Bales is being held at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and will face accusations of the multiple murders in his upcoming trial under the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under the United States court system he will be fairly tried, and one hopes justice will be served. The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, while the mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.

Bales has procured a high powered attorney, John Henry Browne. Browne said that he believes the government will have difficulty proving its case and that his client’s mental state will become an important issue. Browne predictably claims Bales suffers from the stress of serving four combat tours. However, the decision to charge Bales with multiple counts of first degree murder suggests that prosecutors are confident they have sufficient evidence of premeditated murder.

So, why would an American soldier kill innocents? Do they just snap? Speculation that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, allegedly caused Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to have killed these innocents in Kandahar, Afghanistan do not square with most military or ex-military assessment. The suggestion of PTSD playing a part in this tragedy has prompted renewed debate in the United States about the multiple number deployments and extended stays required of its U.S. volunteer military force. An all volunteer Army (following Vietnam, conscription was dropped in the United States) limits the number of active military soldiers available for tours on foreign soil, requiring more tours of duty. Bales’ fourth tour of duty was in Afghanistan, having served three tours in Iraq, where he suffered a head injury and a foot injury. Will this sufficiently satisfy the court and those of us wondering how our American soldiers could turn from duty and honor, to cold blooded killer? It is also being suggested that Staff Sgt Robert Bales, who is accused of the shooting, may have taken the drug Mefloquine, also known as Lariam, prior to the killing. A senior Pentagon official ordered an emergency review of the military’s use of an anti-malaria drug known to have severe psychiatric side effects – nine days after the Afghan massacre. The notorious drug has been implicated in a number of suicides and homicides in the military spanning back more than ten years, with side effects including paranoia, hallucinations and psychotic behavior. But, remember, even valid reasons for hideous acts are not necessarily sufficient to excuse multiple murders, and all has yet to go through the judicial process..

One of the toughest missions for the US military in Afghanistan, besides killing and disruption of terrorists, has been establishment of the rule of law and safety of citizens. One flagrant criminal act such as this jeopardizes the reputations of all American servicemen in Afghanistan, and puts into question our dedication to law and order necessary to sustain Afghanistan from a Taliban take-over in our absence. After all, if we cannot control our own soldiers, or, keep them in camp at night, how can we expect to be trusted to train Afghan soldiers to uphold law, order, discipline and high principles in a war zone? Recently there have also been reports about the poor treatment of the very Afghan army we are training by American soldiers; the great disdain they have been shown by US military in Afghanistan have compelled some servicemen in disgust, to request reassignment. This doesn’t square with the rosy reports of the generals or politicians optimistic oversight.

Some criticism regarding the lack of transparency of the Bales’ case as it goes forward might be in order. This is a country where we have, despite sincere efforts at winning hearts and minds, earned a lack of trust, and has become virulently anti-American as we are seen as no different now than the Soviets.

If these crimes of SSgt. Robert Bales were committed by Afghans against American innocents on U.S. soil there would be a huge outcry for immediate justice, and a clamor for more information, just as there is in Afghanistan now. The U.S. military would do well to ensure open, transparent and accessible information doing justice in this particular case, publicizing events sufficiently to prove the efficacy of the American justice system and curtail inflaming or inciting further outrage in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the subcontinent.

It is reasonable to wonder about the method the U.S. Army goes about enlisting its recruits, given that Robert Bales upon further probing has some disturbing accusations prior to this multiple homicide. Since his arrest, it has come to light that Robert Bales enlisted in the U.S. Army at the same time he was trying to avoid answering allegations he defrauded an elderly couple of their life savings in a stock fraud. Victim Gary Liebschner filed a complaint against Bales in May 2000. Bales subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2001. If this is not enough to question the judgment of an active American soldier, in addition, AP reported that Bales had previously been involved in a 2008 incident of inappropriate advances towards a woman and then assaulted her boyfriend.

The killings have had a serious affect on U.S-Afghan relations. Recently further apparent lack of discipline and supervision led to the accidental burning of Qurans. Obviously, in the sensitivity learned over similar incidents in the past, one would expect military oversight would include checking to see if Quran’s were part of a book burning event. Americans at home and abroad complain of overreaction of Muslims to Quran burnings- but we cannot continue to complain about the expected fall-out of violent protests and revenge killings of American troops in the war zone any more, without deluding ourselves that we are not in some way to blame when these occur, if we do not demand more of our commanders, and proper management and oversight of their men on Islamic soil.

In a separate and different occurrence, the United States Marine Corps is launching an investigation into a video which clearly films Marines in full combat gear urinating on several dead bodies. The U.S. Marines are a proud group, “once a Marine, always a Marine,” and they are known for their hard training, bravery and valor in battle. So, to dishonor this code is reprehensible. Yet, the video on YouTube posted shows a perverted and graphic scene of four male Marines exposing their genitals while they urinate on dead bodies, presumably Taliban.  The caption read, “scout sniper team 4 with 3rd battalion 2nd marines out of camp lejeune peeing on dead talibans.” Captain Kendra N. Hardesty, a Media Officer for the USMC, lamely tried to explain away the unexplainable, “While we have not yet verified the origin or authenticity of this video, the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps….This matter will be fully investigated and those responsible will be held accountable for their actions.” Fair enough, but the images still persist in telling a larger story. The fact remains that the gestalt of all this American troop ugliness, despite our pleading that these are isolated incidents, nevertheless, reverses any good that the majority of those serving in the region, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers serving there, are trying to accomplish.

When the Afghan President Hamid Karzai has to make a statement condemning an American video that appears to show United States Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters, who can say that our American soldiers are disciplined professionals, and are supervised by capable commanders? Should we wonder any more about anti-American sentiments? Decent Muslims from both sides of the Durand Line agree that Taliban are loathsome, and suicide bombs kill Muslims and Americans; but, military code of honor is clear that we do not revert to animals, nor do we defile the enemy. If we allow this, how can we defend accusations against us that we are no better than our enemies?

When there are horrors committed by U.S. troops on foreign soil, most American families may be reluctant to consider how it may affect global opinion. Why be concerned with global opinion say those that believe the inaccurate myth that all Muslims hate us and insist on Sharia Law. We must educate ourselves to understand the differences in culture without dismissing that all Muslims are the same, anymore than all Americans are the same.

The U.S. military has worked hard to include training in cultural differences. NATO officials investigated the Quran burnings found five U.S. troops responsible, but it concluded that the actions were not deliberate and were the result of a miscommunication. The ones responsible are facing disciplinary action. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops last week started mandatory refresher training on Islam and the Quran. The Army travels light, and disposes of extraneous papers, books, and similar objects on a regular basis. However, “Troops are now told flatly not to dispose of Korans and will be urged to err on the side of caution when dealing with Arabic texts, assuming material is sacred if there is any doubt over its religious significance.”

For those inevitable conspiracy theorists that will read this, they will be prepared to expect excuses, a white-wash or diminishing of the tragedies and outrages here. Remember, I wrote about this, to acknowledge American mistakes and tragedies happened. I can only say, they are as hideous to me and to other Americans are they are to you. So, angry accusations hurled at me or other Americans over these matters prior to a fair trial are somewhat premature. Still, towards the end of a decade long incursion into South Asia and the Middle East, the U.S. military cannot afford disgusting acts of as described here: Quran burning, offensive urination on dead bodies, or gruesome shooting legacies in its wake, while it pulls out from what many see as an uncompleted mission.

I am hardly an apologist for the United States- a great country of good and decent people. In the end, those that have any introspection, and hope to learn from past mistakes within the military, and hope that better discipline and closer attention to troops in the field will rid such horrors in our future. I can assure you that all decent Americans are sorry these acts were committed.

Rusty Walker is an educator, author, political analyst, ex-military, from a military family, retired college professor, former Provost (Collins College, U.S.A.), artist, musician and family man. Rusty Walker is an ardent supporter of Pakistan.  Here is a link to Mr. Walker’s other articles published on LUBP:




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