On March 11, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians and wounded five others in what media outlets are now labeling the Kandahar Massacre. Though several of Bales’s family members and colleagues initially expressed disbelief at these accusations, new information has shed light on personal traumas that might have contributed to this heinous act. Clearly, Bales should be held accountable as an individual, but that doesn’t address the whole problem. Recent reports of the events leading up to the massacre — along with studies indicating that many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from mental disorders — reveal the need for new measures of psychological evaluation by the military to prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies.
Bales’s family was “totally shocked” by the accusations, according to a BBC profile. Most of their accounts suggest that Bales had his share of everyday struggles, but was otherwise a well-adjusted man. The complete picture, however, is less serene. Over Bales’s 11-year career in the U.S. Army, reports suggest alcohol abuse, a misdemeanor assault charge and domestic problems that threatened his marriage. He suffered serious brain trauma in one of two wartime injuries. More disturbing still, Bales apparently witnessed a fellow soldier’s dismemberment, the consequence of an attack that occurred only a day before the massacre in which Bales is implicated.
As a result, the embattled soldier’s lawyer will argue that the killings were in part the result of military negligence. Bales claims he was sent on a fourth tour of duty against his will, which begs the question: How many tours are too many? With a volunteer force, it may be difficult for the military to find the appropriate number of troops to fight in Afghanistan, but Bales’s past and unwillingness to serve another tour of duty necessitated a more thorough psychological review than he received.
Bales’s case has also opened up a large-scale discussion about the effects of war on military culture as a whole. If convicted, Bales should be ultimately held accountable for his crime and serve the full penalty afforded by the law. But the flurry of coverage surrounding Bales and the Army’s role in his crimes shouldn’t overshadow the possibility for renewed foreign policy discussion. Huffington Post blogger and Vietnam veteran John Graham suggests that the blame doesn’t rest solely on the instruments of war: “On trial should be any of us who accept war as an unavoidable part of our political landscape and not as the last resort to protect national interests that are vital, immediate and real.”