Bales’s actions occurred on a smaller yet similarly horrifying scale on March 11, 2012. After some drinking and drug use, he left his Kandahar outpost in the middle of the night armed with a pistol, rifle, and grenade launcher. After attacking the nearby village of Alkozai, he returned to his base, woke up a soldier, and described what he had done. Not believing Bales, the soldier went back to sleep. Bales then left the outpost for the second time that night and attacked the village of Najiban. At the end of his nocturnal carnage, 16 villagers were killed, of which nine were children. In a particular insult to Muslims, some of the bodies were set on fire.
Bales’s and Calley’s massacres are instances of soldiers acting monstrously in protracted wars with blurred lines between soldiers, enemies, and civilian bystanders. Although Bales acted alone while Calley acted with company, both soldiers committed cold-blooded murder of defenseless civilians. Despite this commonality, the men received strikingly different punishments. Bales escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty, but he will live out his days in prison. In contrast, Calley served only four months in a stockade even though he was court-martialed, found guilty of 22 premeditated murders, and given a life sentence.
These differing punishments are a reflection of their times. Calley acted in an era of popular scrutiny of the Vietnam War by the anti-war movement, but also by an active strain of pro-government, pro-military nationalism. The national “Free Calley” movement pinned the blame for his crimes on the U.S. government’s foreign policy and a failure of leadership within the military. Under pressure, President Richard Nixon reduced Calley’s sentence.
Bales was not so fortunate; when his lawyers argued that his four deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and when Bales told the jury of his struggle with anger issues after his third deployment, the court showed no mercy by giving him life without the possibility of parole.
Assigning punishment is one aspect of the military’s response to rogue soldiers; analyzing whether policy changes can prevent future incidents is another. After the My Lai Massacre, the military recognized the need to increase ethics training for soldiers and improve the quality of leadership. Bales’s butchery has drawn attention to the need to figure out how the military can identify and prevent soldiers overtaken by the stress of war (whether due to PTSD or otherwise) from redeploying. To its credit, the military has spent over a decade and millions of dollars trying to determine how many deployments are too many. Since the number likely varies from soldier to soldier, it has proven to be a difficult problem to solve. In Bales’s case it is clear that his fourth deployment was one too many. Had he stopped after his third deployment, he would have been a hero instead of a criminal.
While a soldier’s patriotism may cause him to keep volunteering for duty, military policy should protect a soldier from himself just as the National Football League’s concussion policy prevents a player from returning to a game when he sustains a head injury regardless of his desire to play. Until the military can establish with certainty how many deployments a soldier can handle, it should err on the side of caution and create rules that limit the number of deployments based on a soldier’s combat experience. Although Bales can’t undo his actions and bring the victims back, the military can take steps to minimize the chances another war-strained soldier will do the same thing.
PTSD receives a good deal of attention when soldiers return home, but is it receiving enough attention during deployments? What else can be done to prevent soldiers from going rogue? Leave a comment.