Shades of Sanity: A story about soldiers handling war.

March 19, 2012 12:59 pm

Robert Bales, the married father of two, murdered in cold blood 16 innocent Afghans including nine children, and then set their corpses ablaze. He has been transferred to Fort Leavenworth military prison where he will be psycho-analysed by doctors who have experience of working with people like this. John Henry Browne, Bales’ lawyer in Seattle, told The Associated Press that the soldier had witnessed his friend’s legs blown off the day before the massacre.

Even after sustaining two serious injuries, Sgt Robert Bales was involved in a car crash when his Humvee overturned in Iraq and lost part of his foot due to combat duty in Iraq. He was deemed medically fit for duty. His marriage and personal life was apparently going through a tumultuous time; I suppose any soldier’s family would after their loved one had come back from war, scarred but not beaten.

Public records show two brushes with the law after Sgt Bales moved to Washington. He was ordered by a judge in 2002 to undergo anger-management counselling for an alleged assault on a girlfriend in a hotel. He was also arrested in 2008 after fleeing the scene when he drove his car off a road and into a tree. Witnesses told police that he was bleeding, disoriented and smelled of alcohol but he was not charged with drunk driving. He was also facing financial difficulties as they were falling behind on mortgage payments so his wife has now had to put their home up for sale, facing a loss of $50,000; the sale of which will not cover the debt with the bank.


What kind of mind-set does it take to urinate over the dead bodies of Afghans and then murder them in cold blood? Sixteen people including 9 children, all entirely innocent, killed while they were sleeping and then laughed at by their murderer?

In November 2011 an Army panel found Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs guilty of three counts of murdering unarmed Afghan villagers and a dozen other crimes as the leader of a self-proclaimed ‘kill team’. Gibbs, like Sgt Bales, was also from Fort Lewis. Gibbs was found guilty of 15 separate charges, including murder, conspiracy to murder, assault on another soldier and cutting body parts off corpses. Gibbs faced the possibility of life imprisonment without parole but the panel rejected the prosecutor’s calls for that penalty. Instead, he will be able to petition for parole after 10 years.

However, suicides among U.S. soldiers rose 80 percent from 2004 to 2008 an Army study has found. As many as 40% of these suicides have been linked to combat experience in Iraq.  It calls into question the mental stability of soldiers, no matter what country or war they are fighting for/against, who lack social skills, sleep for less than an hour on most nights and eat unhealthy food. Or perhaps the role of the army, and by connection the government’s role in ticking all the boxes when committing itself to war. What are the necessary boxes to tick? Well one of them has to be the fact that you have healthy soldiers serving and fighting for you.

A study conducted at Fort Lewis found mild traumatic brain injury in 15 to 25 percent of the soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Nearly 98 percent of the soldiers who experienced a concussion, head injury or blast exposure had headaches and 40 percent of those said the headaches interfered with daily activities. The study says health-care providers need to identify and properly treat headaches among soldiers. The medical centre at Fort Lewis base is under investigation for downgrading diagnoses of soldiers with PTSD to lesser ailments. Also, military support groups around the base have alleged that base commanders did not give returning troops sufficient time to recover before sending them on further deployments. Furthermore, the groups have alleged that the base’s medical staff are understaffed and overwhelmed by the numbers of returning veterans with deployment-related medical and psychological trauma.

There have been higher rates of suicides at the base, contrasted with other cases of domestic violence to murder involving serving and former serving soldiers from different bases. But this is not just isolated to this base as Senator Patty Murray of Washington said, “I certainly think that we are seeing some serious issues there, but I think it is a national issue.” It is easy to rush to a judgement about such a case, but the underlying problem here is that we are all individuals capable, through free will of iniquitous behaviour, to commit heinous crimes after suffering from some traumatic injury. But Senator Patty Murray also criticized the military hospital at Fort Lewis for overturning 285 diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder.


How did Sgt. Bales go from one village north of the base and then go to another south of the base in such a short space of time?  The villages are roughly two to three kilometres apart. Reuters reported that video footage, “taken from a security camera mounted on a blimp above” the base, showed the perpetrator, allegedly a U.S. Army staff sergeant, surrendering after his fateful early-morning trip to the Combat Outpost Belamby. “The footage showed the uniformed soldier with his weapon covered by a cloth,” Reuters adds, walking to the gates “and throwing his arms up in surrender.” However, what the video may also show is where and when Bales fired his gun from the fire from his muzzle and if there were any other people involved as the US has many other surveillance sensors in the region.

It is a matter that is bounding across the narratives about the amount of surveillance in the area. Most accounts of the shooting by the media say the suspect only left the base for a short amount of time before he turned himself in. It probably wouldn’t have taken long for the search party to have got approval from the nearby Kandahar airfield, which is home to numerous drones and manned spy aircraft. (The coalition flew 717 recon missions over Afghanistan in the last week alone according to U.S. Air Force statistics.)  There may also have been other eyes in the sky on separate missions that might have absorbed imagery of the assault.

The stress of war is a powerful force and no matter what the circumstances, you still have to be subjective when dealing with human behaviour as there is always previous information that needs to be taken into consideration. However, there have been other instances of behaviour that are just plain psychotic. The US base where Sgt Bales hails from, Fort Lewis, is home to the US ‘Kill Team’ responsible for and charged with killing and mutilating civilians for sport. Many a commentator has labelled Fort Lewis a rogue base. The Madigan Army Medical Centre at the base is under investigation after allegations that a special psychiatric team altered staff clinicians diagnosises for hundreds of soldiers from PTSD to lesser ailments and then shipped them back for further mind lapsing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems the reason for these soldiers having their PTSD challenged is the fact that one soldier who is diagnosed with PTSD costs the military $1.5 million over their lifetime in health and benefit payments. There is an obvious failure of leadership at the base in counselling soldiers who have seen horrors during war and then having them shipped back to perform further tours. It is no wonder their symptoms are further exacerbated.

The Washington Post published a poll taken in the US, concerning the support for bringing freedom and democracy to Afghanistan, showing that it was on the wane. Sixty percent of the public say the role of the US in Afghanistan is not worth it, so it is understandable when the likes of Sgt. Bales has to perform four tours of duty for him to finally get out. As it has become endemically prevalent in US society that the public have other issues to worry about, it is also not surprising that few young Americans are leaving their families to fight in far off lands for a low wage.

A philosopher once wrote, “Man revives according to what he carries of thoughts about man, life and the universe, and about their relationship, as a whole, with what preceded this life and what comes after it.” We live our lives according to the most predominant thought we hold and then live and die according to that thought, unless of course we change that thought to another. But if the mind is not right, anything is possible. Whatever the reason for Sgt. Bales killing spree was, whether it was for revenge for a fellow soldier, misplaced loyalty or just plain craziness, the underlying fact has resurfaced about the US and the army’s role in winning hearts and minds in the wider Muslim world. There is no doubt that it has taken a severe knock.

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