In Defense of the United States Military

by Diane Dimond on March 26, 2012

Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales

The drumbeat has already started and I want it to stop.

The moment the horrific news that a U.S. soldier had gone on a rouge killing spree in the far away province of Kandahar, Afghanistan – murdering 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children and then burning some of the bodies, America has been struggling to make sense of it. If the reports are true, what could have caused Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the married father of two, to commit such a heinous act of multiple murder?

In the days since we first heard the news I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read or heard the sentiment that somehow the culture or conditions within our U.S. military made him do it. Or that the military “taught him to kill.” Nonsense.

 

Look, war is hell and since America has now endured more than a decade of non-stop wars maybe it should come as no surprise that this has been the knee-jerk reaction – blame the military. But that’s a specious conclusion as we look for reasons why Sgt. Bales may have done the indefensible. The military doesn’t create monsters. It welcomes and trains patriots willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our country and devises plans to carry out dangerous missions most of us can’t even imagine.

Civilians Can't Imagine a Soldier's Life in Afghanistan

More than half a million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and unlike past conflicts they volunteered to be there. More than 50 thousand of these loyal warriors have endured four or more deployments just like Sgt. Bales. But not one of those other soldiers went out in the dead of night and committed mass murder.

The military does not decide when our country goes into battle, it doesn’t pick our enemies and it no longer drafts unwilling soldiers into its ranks. All the big decisions about war lay with the President and the United States Congress. The military simply follows the orders it gets from above. Is it a perfect institution? No. (I’ve been especially appalled at the way female soldiers have been treated.) But I’m at a loss to point out any government institution that is perfect.

I don’t know what may have made this 38 year old veteran soldier do what he is alleged to have done — and so far no one else does either. In fact, Sgt. Bales’ defense attorney has said his client has no memory of any slaughter so we may never know what made this soldier act with such unconscionable viciousness.

Was Sgt. Bales Trigger Happy?

I’ve read that before he enlisted Bales had several run-ins with the law including a DWI arrest, involvement in a hit-and-run accident and a misdemeanor assault charge. The most shocking behavior, to my mind, was the finding of an Ohio arbitration board that concluded Bales had bilked an elderly couple out of their entire life savings while working for a brokerage firm. The 70-something victims have said they have never received a penny of the 1.4 million dollars settlement Bales was ordered to pay them. Maybe joining the military shortly after the September 11th attacks was Bales’ way of putting distance between himself and that obligation.

More recently Bales and his family had more money troubles. Their house in Tacoma, Washington went into foreclosure and he was upset, according to his wife, that he had been denied a promotion which would have brought in a few extra hundred dollars each month. Bales sustained a couple of combat injuries – to his foot and a suspected traumatic brain injury but he was cleared for duty by military doctors.

I recite these facts to illustrate that despite all the kind things his relatives, friends and teachers are saying about him now one fact is clear: the troubles in Robert Bales life were self-inflicted and not created by the U.S. Military.

Sgt Bales Defense Attorney John Brown

There seems to be no question that Bales is the prime suspect in these cold blooded murders and that he suffered or is still suffering from some massive mental break with reality. Whatever defense his attorney presents for him will likely be all about sparing a mentally sick man’s life and not getting him acquitted of the charges.

As we watch the case against Sgt. Bales proceed consider this: His actions may have not only snuffed out the lives of 16 people they could also go to taint the entire United States military as well. If guilty Sgt. Bales left every other active duty U.S. soldier in that region with the extra daily burden of proving they are not vicious killers themselves. In that area of Afghanistan, where anti-American sentiment has palpably increased since the murders, Bales has literally helped paint a target on the back of his former comrades-in-arms.

This isn’t the fault of the military. It will be up to a military tribunal to decide the facts of this case but at this point it appears to have been a horrible crime of one man – albeit a loving husband and father – who had a history of making bad judgments. Whatever may have happened inside his head does not define the United States of America.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:21 am

ABQ Journal Reader Phyllis Caponera writes:

“Dear Diane,

I have been so hurt by the thought that one of ours killed those women and children in Afganistan and I’m sure that many others feel the same. I have wanted to express this to those families but don’t know how to get my thoughts to them. When I saw your article in the newspaper, I thought that maybe you could be the messenger.

I would like to tell them that many of us in this country feel their loss as if it had happened to families in this country. How one soldier could do such a despicable act we do not understand. I understand that our country paid you money for your loss but I’m sure it means nothing; how can money compensate for your loved ones. Nor can words mean much but I wanted you to know that I hurt for you and my prayers go out to you.

I hope that this letter can somehow get to you.”

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:26 am

ABQ Journal Reader Lt. Col Don Fisher writes:

“Opening to the OP-ED section of my Albuquerque Journal newspaper this morning , I immediately zeroed in on your “Don’t Blame the Military…” column. I want to offer my profound and profuse thanks for a thoughtful and an exceptionally well considered piece of writing. I am an “old soldier.” I served twenty-five years in the U.S. Army and those years included two one-year tours in Vietnam.

I was not in the infantry, but Vietnam had more than a few similarities to the situation for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was essentially no way to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” That is, until they shot at you. And women and children did sometimes get involved in actions intended to kill American soldiers. Soldiers got frustrated and made statements such as, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” And as you may know, something like that happened in Vietnam, only far worse.

It was the infamous Mylai massacre in 1968 ordered by Lt. William Calley. Depending on who was counting, something between 100 and 300 Vietnamese civilians were mowed down by Calley and at least some of the men in his infantry platoon. Calley was eventually tried and convicted in Court Martial proceedings, but later pardoned by President Nixon.

As you can guess, the issue of Calley’s actions are rather like most historical facts about Vietnam — something to be forgotten, not mentioned in polite society, or dismissed as not applicable to present events.

What all too many Americans do not understand is that Afghganistan is in some ways strikingly similar to what went on in Vietnam from about 1965 to 1971. By the time I arrived in Vietnam on my second tour in late 1969, I realized that what we — the military and the civilian leadership — were doing in Vietnam was a lost cause. This was not a “win-able war.” Nixon, for all his many faults, seemed to have realized that and sought a way out. It was not a particularly great exit, but as a nation, we finally departed, never to return, except as tourists and diplomats. I don’t think the war in Afghanistan is winnable in the way we Americans like to win — almost as if it was a sport.

As far as our Military establishment is concerned, the big difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan (and including Iraq) is the number of deployments that the all- volunteer people have had to serve. Generally speaking, draftees served only one tour in Vietnam and career people like me rarely served more than two tours. I have told some of my college and Army buddies that if I were like a cat with the proverbial nine lives, I used up five of them — in Vietnam. I can tell you without hesitation that I was in nasty little fire fight one night in Vietnam, following which I might possibly have tried to kill any Vietnamese person that I could see — man, woman, or child. I had lost six of my soldiers and had some minor wounds. Fortunately I soon got over the physical hurt as well as the mental aspect. When I was a battalion commander at one point, I knew I had to caution my troops not to abuse or kill civilians unless they were obviously trying to kill them or their fellow soldiers. That sort of control or a standard setting is only one of the many things which officers should be doing for their troops.

Once again, many thanks for good, honest, and well-reasoned journalism.

Don R. Fisher
Lt.Col, US Army (Ret)

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:27 am

ABQ Journal Reader Jolanta Tuzel writes:

“I do very much like reading your articles. However I do not agree with your statement from the very end of your article about Robert Bales: “This isn’t the fault of the military……..”.
Before Robert Bales enlisted he (according to your article) “had several run-ins with the law including a DWI arrest, involvement in a hit and run, assault charges” and he “bilked an elderly couple out of their entire life savings” and never paid a penny back and had other money troubles. The man has criminal past, no control over his impulses, no integrity, no ethical standards and he is permitted to enlist? This is a fault of of the military, the fault of the person or people who did let him into the military.”

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:29 am

Dear Jolanta:

You have a point – however, its my understanding that Bales was never convicted of any crime – even after his several run in with the law. So, if the military had run a criminal background check on him it would have come back empty.

But your point is well taken. Maybe the military should do more extensive background checks on volunteer soldiers. ~ DD

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:30 am

ABQ Journal Reader Elna Ray writes;

“Now do one on Nidal Hassan.”

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 12:30 am

ABQ Journal Reader Chris Hall writes:

“Thank you for today’s excellent article!”

Chris

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

Facebook Friend Al Petow writes;

“I blame the Government for allowing the multiple redeployment of men three, four and five times. Some soldiers, no matter how well trained they are can come unglued.

Lyndon Johnson did it in the Viet Nam war…. AMERICA IS NOT AT WAR… The Pentagon is! The present administration is running a peacetime America when we are in multiple wars. The public is having fun but we are going to have another generation of veterans who will need medical care and counseling ..

I served in two wars and the second one was tougher to handle than the first one. I can’t begin to imagine how I could have handled a third one.”

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Alice Rodgers writes:

“Please don’t speak for active duty soldiers/marines. I Just read your column in the Albuquerque Journal about not blaming the military for one man’s actions., specifically Staff Sgt. Robert Bates.

I am actively engaged in researching war and as you probably know only 1% are serving. Actually, it is less than that when you consider the difference between people serving in the Navy and Air Force who are rarely in combat as compared to Army and Marine personnel. It’s primarily the men (with a few women) in the Army and Marines who are in combat zones and face life and death much of the time. I have no idea of what that is like and I doubt if you do either.

Also many men (and women too) joined the National Guard with no expectation that they would ever serve in a war. I have talked to some of those people. One told me that his father and grandfather served in the National Guard in Washington State. It became a tradition for the men in his family to serve in the National Guard, so they could serve their state during emergencies, disasters, etc. Because the unit in which he served had not been called for active duty in 100 or more years, he never expected to be sent to Iraq. He sat next to me on a plane and the stories he told me were riveting and included vignettes about men dying needlessly because of lack of equipment, protective armor and logistical tactics.

Also, I think it is important that we all ponder that few if any people who were in Viet Nam served more than one term.

Based on my work and my friendships with people who currently have or have had sons in the combat zone in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, no one – not you or me or anyone who is not either a parent of a child or a person who is or has been in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan can or should ever speak or make judgments about anyone who is and has been fighting in either of these wars — unless we are walking beside them constantly for tour after tour after tour and then continuing walking next to them when they get home and going with them to try to get the psychological help they may need. “

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Diane Dimond March 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Dear Ms. Rodgers,

I will most certainly speak for active duty soldiers/marines … at every chance I get!

I am old enough to remember the horrible homecoming our soldiers received after coming back from Vietnam.

With this new wave of “the military made him do it” mentality that has surfaced since Sgt. Bales was identified as the suspect in the killings of 17 Afghan civilians I want to make damn sure I speak out – and write publicly – so that the majority of our fighting men and women are not tainted by the tragedy. I don’t know what will happen to Sgt. Bales, whether he will plead guilty or be found guilty – but our military is more than just one man.

I want all of society (as I have written several times before in my columns) to get ready for the influx of the returning veterans. We need to rally around all of them to support their sacrifice. Employers need to think of vets when they hire, the court system needs to institute the Veteran Court idea that started in upstate, NY to cater to their particular problems and we all need to speak FOR them and TO them constantly as a way to honor their brave actions.
You may think we should stay silent because we weren’t “walking next to them” in combat. But I passionately disagree. ~ DD

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Jack Gonterman March 26, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Diane,
Great article. As a Vietnam vet and retired law enforcement, I have seen entire organizations tainted by unperceivable actions of a few. Thanks for speaking up for those subject to the backlash.

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Gordon Phillips, Lt Col (Ret), USAF March 27, 2012 at 10:36 am

Diane, thank you for your article on Army Ssgt Bales. You have done a great service to the servicemembers of this nation. I’m a retired AF Lt Col with 4 combat tours (most over the skies of Iraq), but most recently a ground command tour of a combined AF/Army unit in Nangarhar Province (on the eastern border with Pakistan) in Afghanistan. Although the military has many safeguards to help prevent these atrocities (multiple levels of supervision, “Battle-Buddies”, etc.), unfortunately they will happen when someone with a weapon and a warped mind goes on a rampage. I most appreciate you identifying the increased threat to other soldiers because of Ssgt Bales’ actions. In fact, today there was another story in the news of the killing of NATO servicemen (at least one US) by the Afghan military. The blood should be on Ssgt Bales hands! Thanks again Diane for your article – forever a fan.

Gordon

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Diane Dimond March 27, 2012 at 11:05 am

Thank YOU Lt. Col. for your service to our country! ~ DD

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Diane Dimond March 27, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Huffington Post Reader Eric14 writes:

“The military should be tainted. It’s called ”performance evaluation.”

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Diane Dimond March 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Huffington Post Reader SSteph812 writes:

“SSgt Bales is not to blame, if chain of command screwed up. They should have never let him deploy. He had a Traumatic brain injury and Post traumatic stress disorder, in no way is that cleared for duty. So what DR., and what Commander cleared him fit for duty? I do not condone what has happened. I have served in the Army as a Combat Medic and many of my friends have seen a lot. Not to mention how many of them have really bad PTSD. People need to look at his chain of command. Who in the world gave him live rounds for his weapon, since they knew he had issues?????”

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Diane Dimond March 29, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Huffington Post Reader JesseMWilliams writes:

“Diane Diamond, Mam, have you ever been IN the military? i don’t care if you went to a war area with them, I am asking if you have have been in a military uniform of any of the 4 branches? Cause I quote you with, “The military doesn’t create monsters.” , and I ask “How do you know if you’ve never walked in the shoes.” I ask because I have served, and my job didn’t even come close to gun fire, but it still turned people into monsters. Having to spend days at a time on a ship without leaving, while it is still in port – is really a monstrous act to a family in their eyes, and will turn people into monsters.”

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Diane Dimond March 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Huffington Post Reader realitytrumpsbull writes:

“There is no justification for Bales’ actions. The only really important decision that’s going to impact Bales from this point forward, is whether or not the military will be seeking the death penalty. Also, it might indirectly affect all the people responsible for approving his deployment. No punitive action against anyone, no damage award, can replace the lives of those lost to Bales’ actions. But, they can work to try and prevent it from happening again, in a number of ways. How did Bales wander off post in the middle of the night, armed to the teeth? That’s one good question, another good question is how he supposedly came back to the post, got more ammunition, and went out again, allegedly. Did he have help, tacit support for his actions from his chain of command, buddies? What exactly went on, here? There’s about 1,000 questions about this entire situation. One of them would be: Why is the military still in Afghanistan?”

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