Commentary Magazine


Soldiers Won’t Cut Afghan Killer Any Slack

All I can say is: It’s a good thing that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who apparently killed 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood, will be tried by a panel of his peers (i.e. fellow soldiers) in a military court-martial rather than by a civilian jury. The latter, I suspect, will be more sympathetic than the former to the media-driven image of him as a poster boy for post-traumatic stress disorder rather than simply judging him to be a murderous fiend.

The New York Times, for example, has a lengthy account todaythat portrays Bales as an all-American type—high school football player, family man, patriotic volunteer—who simply snapped, through no fault of his own, under the weight of four combat deployments combined with marital and money woes. The depiction may be accurate enough, and there is no doubt that PTSD is a real problem and that nonstop combat deployments take a toll, but there is no excuse or justification for the heinous act he is accused of committing.

According to the statistics provided to me by the army, there are 51,270 soldiers, active duty, reserve and retired, who, like Bales, have four or more deployments. (More than 81,000 have at least three deployments.) Arguably that it is too much stress for any one person to carry and no doubt many of those who have deployed that many times engage in all sorts of reckless behavior–drinking, driving fast, and so forth. But there have been precious few war crimes like the one that was allegedly committed by Bales–and none as terrible measured by the loss of life. A civilian jury might not understand that and might buy into an argument from his lawyers that he was a victim of the army’s deployment tempo. His fellow combat vets, who have been through similar experiences but have maintained their composure, will not, I would guess, be so quick to cut him a lot of slack.