The Way We War

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times over the past ten years, has been accused of systematically going door to door and shooting or stabbing sixteen Afghan civilians, mostly women and children.

Bales joined the army, as a lot of American men and women did, within months of the September 11 attacks in 2001. “It was not ‘I’m going to get the bad guys’ kind of thing. It was ‘I’m going to help my country,’ ” he said. Since then, his record shows quite a bit of ‘high stress’ activity both mentally and physically due to being deployed so many times in the first place and the toll it took on his family life. Post traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) is certainly nothing new in the study of war, and it is often paired with alcoholism, suicide and other emotional problems if treated incorrectly, or not treated at all. I’ve been told by a friend recently stationed in Afghanistan that the military approaches psychological problems with a quick anti-depressant and nothing more.

War is always about “the bad guys.” It’s also about being told what to do, even if it goes against all the morals, beliefs, and conceptions of good and evil you had prior to joining ranks. I (and many others I imagine) would like to believe that Bales is evil, because it would make understanding his actions (if, that is, he is actually guilty of them) much easier. But sadly war is a lot more complex than that for a soldier, and it brings out the worst in human nature by relying on the absence of morality in order to accomplish death and destruction.

This type of debate is still very much prevalent in how modern collective memory comprehends and represents World War II on both the European and Pacific fronts.

In order to fathom why a soldier could act in the way Bales did, it is first necessary to understand the psychological and historical experience of war. There is no possible way for an individual who has never participated in the military to fully comprehend these experiences, but any accumulation of empathy is, I believe, mental effort well spent.

If Bales is judged guilty of these acts, then he should face the necessary consequences. Explaining how and why atrocities occur should not be synonymous with exculpation. This means, using this particular case as an example, that human beings need to think seriously about the practice and implications of war, not to mention their effects on the men and women who become part of a cycle that has been profoundly damaging throughout history. Only then can these and other occurrences be prevented in the future.