Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (left), the U.S. soldier who allegedly shot and killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., on Aug. 23.
Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System/AFP/Getty Images

Like many others in the military community, I’ve been following the unfolding of the alleged shooting by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of 16 Afghan civilians. I say “alleged” because while the evidence so far looks pretty damning, the case is still under investigation.

I have no expertise as a political or military pundit, but since this blog is interested in the spiritual and mental health of soldiers, and since Bales’ lawyer has already indicated that Bales’ mental health and deployment history will be prominent in his defence, I think it’s worth noting this story.

One of the go-to people in the press this week has been retired US Army general Peter Chiarelli, who is now working in the area of brain disorder research. In this interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, Chiarelli makes two important points. First, there are simply not adequate diagnostics to screen for “behavioural health issues”. Second, he notes that the decision to send Bales to Afghanistan, despite his medical history and previous tours, “is not uncommon for a force that has been fighting in two separate theaters for over 10 years.” What Chiarelli implies but does not elaborate on is that Bales may be the presenting symptom of a small, all-volunteer force, pushed to the limit and beyond for a decade and now beginning to come apart.

Chiarelli also puts in an appearance on this piece from yesterday’s PBS News Hour. Dr. Jeffrey Johns, the ex-Air Force psychiatrist on the panel with Chiarelli, has some pretty scathing things to say about the US military’s screening processes and demands. As Johns says, “the military is not taking care of its own”. Several of the callers to last Friday’s edition of NPR’s Diane Rehm show make the same point.

It’s early days yet, but to my mind, here are some things to watch as this story develops.

1) How far will Bales’ defence, which seems to be a PTSD variant on “temporary insanity”, go given that the US military has tried 43 other soldiers for crimes against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan?

2) Will this case shed any new light on links between post traumatic stress and violent behaviour, or lead to improvements in screening procedures? Will the problem be linked to an army that is too small, doing a job that is too large, and lead us to revisit conscription for future wars?

3) To go beyond my arcs a bit, will this case accelerate NATO and US withdrawals from Afghanistan? I find it worrisome that military affairs bloggers like Tom Ricks seem to calling for the West to “pop smoke” and get out.

0 Responses

  1. Reading your latest blog entry put me in mind of a conversation I had some years ago with ex-Lt Col Dave Grossman. He identified the need to ensure that soldiers who began to suffer from combat stress were properly dealt with … and that if this was done then soldiers could be returned to combat after proper 'treatment'/recuperation.

    What this soldier is alleged to have done is appalling and should not have happened … but in the wrong circumstances how many of us can say that we might not have done the same thing?

    Bob Cordery

    PS. Dave Grossman was both a combat soldier and psychologist who has written about this (See here and here)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I am familiar with Grossman. Some of the psychological distortions mentioned by hiim and Christensen are now coming out in the press ref Bales, his lawyer is now saying, it seems, that he claims he does not remember the incident.

    Getting guys treatment is key. chiarelli has a lot to say on this subject. Such as removing the D for Disorder from PTSD so soldiers do not feel stigmatized. Lots of work t do here.

  3. Not to mention all the guys who have served without issue but are carrying their experiences through life into who knows what.

    I know more than one person who's first reaction to the civilian airline pilot who went berserk this week, without any facts to go on, was "I wonder if he's a vet?"