Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sgt. Bales, Major Hasan, Consistency, and Decency…

[Note: This reflection owes much to the excellent reporting of Mike Riggs at]

A recent article in USA Today noted a commonality between science and libertarianism...both make a big deal of logical consistency and reason. Libertarians, it seems, score higher than liberals and conservatives on cognition, but score lower on empathy. I suspect the test of empathy is somehow weighted toward empathy with a tinge of else to explain the empathy David Brooks shows mass murderer, ahem...tragic soldier, Sgt. Robert Bales…
Mike Riggs of tells the disturbing story. Bales, of course, is the guy who slaughtered nine Afghan women, three Afghan children, and four Afghan men, subsequently burning many of the corpses. David Brooks’ New York Times column on Bales is titled “When the Good Do Bad,” a title perhaps more appropriate for a pastor who dips into the communion wine or the tithing funds than a man who commits mass murder. Brooks’ excuse for Bales’ actions goes like this: 
Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.
Brooks never mentions--it’s not as if he’s a journalist--that Bales’ “daily struggles” predate his military stint. You need to read the New York Times  Bales profile to learn about the woman he was arrested for assaulting before signing up for “haec protegimus.” To catch it, be sure to read down to paragraph eight, beyond the encomiums filling the first seven paragraphs. You have to go to ABC News to learn that at the time of Bales was enlisting he was under investigation for swindling an elderly Ohio couple out of their life savings.
Bad as it is, we “cognitive” libertarians are perhaps more disturbed by the double standard. As Riggs of Reason notes, Brooks didn’t talk about the “mixture of virtue and depravity” making up Major Nidal M. Hasan when he wrote about the Ft. Hood massacre in 2009. He never suggested Hasan was “swept up in a whirlwind” when he killed 13 American soldiers in Texas. Brooks, writing at the time, noted that many were claiming Hasan fell victim to PTSD, much as many claim that of Bales now. But Brooks would have none of it in 2009.
Of Hasan, Brooks said:
He didn’t have the choice to be lonely or unhappy. But he did have a choice over what story to build out of those circumstances. And evidence is now mounting to suggest he chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.
Riggs sums up the libertarian view of double standards perfectly: He says:
To recap: The white man who killed brown people after seeing brown people kill white people “was swept up in a whirlwind”; the brown man who killed white people after hearing about white people killing brown people “chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.”
There is another aspect of double standard in the Bales case: how the victims are treated. Riggs notes that nowhere in the New York Time’s “all the news that’s fit to print,” was it deemed fitting to print the names of the Afghan victims. To find that, you had to read the story in Al Jazeera:
Many mainstream media outlets channelled a significant amount of energy into uncovering the slightest detail about the accused soldier – now identified as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. We even know where his wife wanted to go for vacation, or what she said on her personal blog.But the victims became a footnote, an anonymous footnote. Just the number 16. No one bothered to ask their ages, their hobbies, their aspirations. Worst of all, no one bothered to ask their names.
There is no question that war is Hell. The question is whether it excuses mass murder. After all the talk of PTSD, of traumatic brain injury (TBI), of the horrors of war that make “good” men commit atrocities, there are in reality only 4 options for someone in Sgt. Bales’ situation (a situation that, for all we might commiserate, he chose, in this All-Volunteer Military era, himself): He could…
  1. Tough it out.
  2. Kill himself
  3. Kill his commanders
  4. Kill innocent people
Choices 1 and 2 are honorable. Choice 3, known as fragging, has a long tradition in war, and sends a powerful message. Only choice 4, the choice Bales actually made, is utterly contemptible. But it is not, sadly, uniquely contemptible...
As recently as 2010, the Maywand District killings in Afghanistan led to the conviction of a dozen American soldiers for the crime of “killing Afghan civilians for sport.” I don’t know if Al Jazeera got around to it, so it only seems fair to list their names:
Staff Sergeant David Bram
Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs
Pfc. Andrew Holmes
Sgt. Darren Jones
Spc. Adam Kelly
Pfc Ashton A. Moore
Spc. Corey Moore
Spc. Jeremy N. Morlock
Spc. Emmitt Quintal
Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens
Spc. Adam Winfield
Spc. Michael Wagnon
Of course, it happens in war zones beyond Afghanistan. The Haditha killings in November, 2005 in Iraq consisted of 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women, and children killed by US Marines...children and elderly shot multiple times at close range, all civilians. Three US officers were reprimanded. 8 Marines were charged. Six charges were dropped. One was found not guilty.
In January, 2012, seven years after the fact, one Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, went to court martial, and was found guilty of “dereliction of duty,” receiving a pay cut and rank reduction, but no jail time. Iraqis expressed disbelief that 24 civilians could be murdered and no one go to jail. I can’t imagine why...Anger and resentment, sure. Disbelief? That’s just not paying attention...
Last January, the Washington Post had a column titled Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars? It included the following datum:
The major wars the United States has fought since the surrender of Japan in 1945 — in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan — have produced colossal carnage. For most of them, we do not have an accurate sense of how many people died, but a conservative estimate is at least 6 million civilians and soldiers.

I seem to recall another nation responsible for the death of 6 million innocent civilians. I recall they were not viewed kindly for it. I’d elaborate, but I wouldn’t want to be accused of inflammatory statements...or double standards.


  1. Excellent article, Ted. The indifference to non-American casualties in the US Military's endless overseas adventures is something I frequently face with my family members. Nothing reduces a friendly dinner conversation to vague, sullen murmurs more effectively than questions about "collateral damage."

    I'd like all of them to read your article, and the Washington Post piece. Maybe I'll try posting them on Facebook. ;)