Staff Sergeant Bales and the reality of war

What the Kandahar massacre says about 21st century warfare

The American military, as an institution, is as strong and professional now as it has ever been in its history.

This trend runs concurrent with another development. Information technology—specifically, as it relates to photo/video capture, and the instant access of a global audience—is more advanced than ever before.

These two positive investments have combined, more so in recent years, to produce something considerably less positive than the sum of its parts.

To paraphrase retired U.S. Marine Captain Nathaniel Fick, our country has a peculiar trait of honoring our servicemen and women without acknowledging what it is that they do.

This has been a fairly simple task for most of the past decade. Maligned and protested as it was, the Iraq war affected few Americans (less than 1 percent of the population served in that conflict); the war in Afghanistan even fewer. There is a wide gulf of understanding between civilians and fighting men and women.

That is because there is difficulty in reconciling the realities of war with the idyllic perceptions of an insulated civilian world. One such reality, obvious as it is, seems particularly difficult to grasp. It is this: Professionalism and technological advancements aside, the aim of warfare has remained virtually constant since antiquity. Namely, the death of the enemy.

Of course, this is a tactical-level consideration, only. From a strategic standpoint, the aim of warfare is to neutralize the ability of the opposition to resist your political goals. This need not imply violence.

Indeed, the best wars are the ones that never resort to combat. The umbrella term for this is “deterrence”—a concept that deserves far more coverage than this piece can manage. To say the least, things like the size of the U.S. Navy, the American nuclear arsenal, and the gross ordnance tonnage of the U.S. Air Force all contribute to this strategic concept of deterrence. Iran should take notice.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, killing enemy combatants was and is a large part of the mission. Advanced as the American military has become, this objective has been one of its most achievable goals in the Middle East and Central Asia. No one could deny this. Most people acknowledge the violence inherent in our statebuilding operations abroad.

But to see the bloody outcome itself in eight megapixel resolution on a slideshow on YouTube? That is harder to stomach.

One such video, of Marine scout snipers urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, sparked immediate outrage. The investigation and proceedings are ongoing, though it is safe to say that the Marines involved will be disciplined.

The event has been a headache to U.S. officials and military leaders, who recognize the frailty of already-poor American-Afghan relations. The hearts and minds campaign has taken a blow.

The corpses of enemy combatants were desecrated. It was unprofessional, it was pointless and it reflects poorly on an organization renowned for a higher measure of battlefield conduct than what this video depicted.

That said, does the whole affair really matter, apart from a nasty blow to public relations? I’ll answer with a brief observation. I doubt the corpses minded.

Callous, yes. Also callous is the fact that it is acceptable to shoot them, blow them up and turn their wives into widows and their children into orphans. That is, after all, expected. But to desecrate their lifeless bodies is revulsion beyond measure.

Should they have done it? No. Did they accomplish any objective of their mission by doing it? No. Does it represent anything more than bad taste and the bad judgment of recording and then posting the video online? No, it does not.

There have been far more severe cases of misconduct on the part of American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Haditha, Iraq, U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children after the violent death of a comrade (Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who was literally torn in half by an improvised explosive device).

In September 2010, it came to public attention that a handful of U.S. soldiers from the 5th Combat Stryker Brigade had made sport of killing Afghan civilians, posing with the bodies for photographs, and keeping things like fingers as souvenirs.

The Marines who urinated on the bodies of the Taliban fighters should be punished. They knew better, and, as Marines, they should be held to a higher standard. For the record, desecration of a corpse in the United States carries a three-year prison sentence (variable, state to state). Their behavior was poor; frat-like, even. But they are not monsters.

Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, however, is a monster.

For reasons that have yet to come to light, in early March 2012, Bales left his compound at 3:00 am (he was wearing night vision goggles), and proceeded to kill 17 unarmed Afghan civilians. Reportedly, Bales returned to combat outpost Camp Belamby after the act, and turned himself in without a struggle.

The entire incident—its magnitude, and its apparent lack of any provocation—is baffling.

The massacre does not run concurrent with any broader erosion of military discipline, as far as military officials can see. It did not occur on the forefront, or in the aftermath of any major combat operation in Afghanistan. By all accounts, Bales “just snapped.”

This is not what we want from our wars. The actions of SSgt Bales, the Marines of the Haditha Killings and the soldiers of the Stryker Brigade did nothing to accomplish the mission. Not on any tactical level, by any measure. Nor did they contribute to the overall success of the American mission in either theatre. On the contrary, these events are considerably more damaging to our goals than any lone action by the Taliban, al-Qaida or the Iraqi insurgency.

Why does this happen?

Part of it is training. The vast majority of a soldier/Marine’s combat training relates to perseverance and the maintaining of mental clarity during periods of extreme and chaotic stress. Another part is leadership. Always, in situations such as these, one must ask—where were the officers? For the military machine to function properly, there must always be accountability. If that is to happen, there must be supervision, and levelheaded guidance. All of the cases mentioned thus far exhibit a conspicuous absence of each.

There are other aspects of the incidents that deserve blame. Alcohol appears to have played a role in the actions of Bales, and drug abuse was common in the team that collected Afghan body parts as trophies. In some cases, the problem goes back all the way to the recruiter. Some of these men should never have been soldiers.

Still, all of this distracts from the real malaise; the most sobering of the realities of war that our society never seems to remember, or at least conveniently forgets, in the run up to an invasion.

It is that this sort of behavior is as old as war itself. And while it may be stemmed, and its magnitude diminished, it can never be completely prevented. Even in this digital age of instant communication and high definition images—gory, obscene definition—as far as war is concerned, there truly is nothing new under the sun.


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