Guest: Guilt for Afghan killings, including Robert Bales’s case, lies with many
Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing Afghan civilians, is an example of poor oversight and leadership, writes guest columnist Andre Boissevain.
Special to The Times
THE issues in Army Sgt. Robert Bales’ case, who pleaded guilty to killing Afghan civilians, are multifactorial. All people are not emotionally equal. Responsibility in the military lies at multiple levels.
Look at how quickly observers of this year’s bombing at the Boston Marathon reacted. Some immediately went to help, others were emotionally paralyzed and others just screamed. Not to mention the immediate post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Realize every day in Afghanistan there are many versions of such an incident, as it was in Iraq. I wrote several letters to my state’s representatives in Washington, D.C., with the message that multiple tours for our volunteer Army troops are immoral. Sgt. Bales was on his fourth tour, and he had some stress-related problems as well as a head injury.
My plea was to institute the draft. Spread the wealth, so to speak. I fantasize about how rapidly Congress would end these wars if our legislators’ children were being jerked out of the good life to put on boots and go to the war zones.
Many of these service members served not only in these two wars, but also in Bosnia. I briefly served in Iraq in the first Gulf War and cannot imagine what our present troops are experiencing.
The military’s responsibility is spread out at many levels. The bunkmates, friends, platoon and company need to monitor each member. Are they drinking? Using drugs? Showing symptoms of stress or other signs of problems?
Sgt. Bales was drinking, a surefire physical impairment for any worker who must drive, use machinery or exercise good judgment. Were his superiors aware? Worse, he was using muscle-building steroids three times a week. Well-documented side effects of steroid use include rage and violence.
Did any of his teammates know this and report it up the chain of command? Was it hidden by the “good old boy network”?
This is not so different from the current sexual-assault problem that the armed forces are dealing with. Actions were ignored or not reported. These problems must be reported up the chain of command for everyone’s safety.
We can go all the way to the Pentagon, and ask are leaders enforcing the rules against excessive alcohol and drugs, and managing overwork and stress appropriately? Are there adequate personnel and funding to carry this mission out?
As an intern serving on duty in the emergency room (before the rules on reasonable working hours changed) covering the weekend, I once worked 80 straight hours with no bed in sight. I am not embarrassed to say that by early Monday morning I had no empathy and could barely follow the patients’ stories and symptoms.
Our soldiers are exposed to this mind-numbing stress day after day.
The point is that responsibility was not solely Sgt. Bales’, but also belongs to his immediate leaders, leaders up the line all the way to the Pentagon, and our lawmakers. They are all guilty of lack of oversight and understanding of this system.
And how about the American people in general? Are many even aware, involved, proactively helping our amazing and hardworking service members?
Bales is an example of poor oversight and leadership. Surely he must serve a sentence as ordered, but he is not alone as a perpetrator. Would any of you hold up under four or more tours in those conditions? I doubt that I would.
The Army is changing and will continue to change, but slowly. Everyone needs to realize that Sgt. Bales fell through the cracks.
Andre Boissevain is a retired U.S. Army colonel and doctor based in Sequim.