By DeWayne Wickham
Even before the identity of the Army staff sergeant believed to have massacred 16 people in an Afghanistan village became known, excuses for his ghoulish acts of terror started popping up in the news media, diminishing the likelihood that justice will prevail in this case.
In one account, an unnamed military official said the suspect who has since been identified as 38-yearold Robert Bales — had been drinking alcohol the night of the murderous rampage. Another official said he was distraught over an incident in which a fellow soldier’s leg was blown off.
There were reports that Bales might have had marital and financial problems, and a story that he suffered a head wound during the last of his three deployments to Iraq. In some “chronic cases,” that sort of injury “can lead to cognitive problems, personality changes and a loss of impulse control,” The New York Times reported after Bales was named as the lone suspect.
What we know for certain is that nine children, three women and four men were killed. These innocent victims were attacked as they slept in villages that were supposed to be protected by soldiers on Bales’ nearby base. The bodies of some of the victims were set on fire. That’s the work of a murderous madman. But don’t expect Bales to be treated like one if he’s convicted of the late-night killing spree. History suggests otherwise.
Not one of the eight Marines charged in the 2005 massacre of 24 people in Iraq, including women, children and a man in a wheelchair, was imprisoned. One was acquitted, the charges against six others were dropped. The sergeant who admitted ordering his men to “shoot first and ask questions later” was given a plea bargain, serving no time behind bars.
And though William Calley, the Army lieutenant who ordered the 1968 attack that killed 500 unarmed people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, was found guilty of personally killing 22 people, he served just three-and-a-half years of house arrest before President Nixon commuted his sentence.
In each case, public opinion among war-weary Americans opposed harsh punishment for these mass murderers, who were seen more as victims of unpopular wars — men who were driven over the brink by the bad decision-making of their superiors or of Washington policymakers.
Such shortsightedness damages more than the American concept of justice. It also does great injury to the democratic ideals we use to justify the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And when an American soldier who commits a crime gets off with little or no punishment, it devalues the lives of their foreign victims and creates tensions that put at risk the lives of other U.S. servicemembers who get targeted for retribution.
Of course, war can take a heavy emotional and psychological toll on those who are sent into battle. But that’s no excuse for the brutal slaughter Bales is suspected of committing. Unfortunately, many news media organizations appear to suggest otherwise by putting more effort into looking for explanations for Bales’ alleged bad acts than in trying to uncover the details of those heartless crimes.
To imply that a U.S. soldier who goes on a killing spree in a foreign land is less culpable because of the pressures of war slanders the incredibly good conduct of the millions of U.S. men and women who have served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The person who massacred the Afghan villagers deserves the contempt of this nation — and the unyielding judgment of its criminal justice system.