Since the identity of the American soldier who massacred 16 Afghan villagers has been made known, the media has relentlessly pursued his background. He is Robert Bales -- and for a brief time, his name trended just above Jason Russell, the maker of the Kony2012 viral video who himself had a bizarre meltdown. Neither of them got as much attention as the entertainment celebrities of that day, but they are their own forms of entertainment.
To read the coverage of Bales, you get the impression that the national media is trying to gives us three messages:
o "the savings-loan/housing market collapse/recession made him do it"
In each of the stories about Bales, even before his identity was released, we've heard a key factor for his appalling crime -- the worse in the entire war -- was his inability to pay for his mortgage -- he was falling behind on mortgage payments.
o "Post-traumatic stress and three previous tours of duty made him do it"
Somehow, although it is implied Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from being injured in Iraq and experiencing "shell shock" as it used to be called, if there were symptoms of it, it never manifested before the massacre, or the symptoms that may have manifested, such as domestic violence, wasn't taken seriously enough. But much has been made of the idea that Bales was "deployed too often" or too many times in a row.
o "He's also a proper target of Occupy Wall Street"
Bales briefly became a part of the "1 percent" when he got his hands on $850,000 of an elderly couple's money in Columbia, Ohio, and then squandered it on AT&T stock and lost it all. So he's a poster boy for "what's wrong" with the evil capitalist stock market system that makes people into conniving thieving robbers of people's life's savings. Oh, an boo, evil AT&T, hated by geeks!
In other words, the form that the examination of Bales is taking isn't really so much about this man, or about the military, with very real problems which spawned this sort of soldier, but larger ills in society, vaguely formulated -- banking, capitalism, housing, etc. are all motivations that make someone depressed and even suicidal or -- in this case, homicidal.
As for the poor village left reeling from this trauma, we don't have any more attention. The New York Times haughtily instructed us that we must not "get it" about Afghan culture, if we didn't accept what mullahs were telling the Times -- that burning the Koran was a worse offense, and people weren't staging mass riots in Afghanistan over this massacre, because the killing of people was less important, supposedly, and a death could be expiated by a payment of blood money, which in this case, the Afghan government paid.
That seemed awfully callous, as even getting some kind of payment, the elderly man with a wife and 8 children lost in this horrific act surely can't be heartened and must be grieving along with all his remaining relatives and neighbours. Why would the Afghan people be different than any other people? Why are we accepting only the word of mullahs on this question? If there is a mother or aunt or sister remaining of these massacred people, don't you think she's grieving terribly, filled with anger and a sense of helplessness that the notion that the Koran is more sacred or blood money aren't helping to dissipate? I'm not prepared to believe that this doesn't matter, or that Afghanis are so inured to death that they don't care if nine children and seven adults are killed in their village.
They had real tears in their eyes, and I don't imagine they went away.
Only Al Jazeera has run a piece saying that in fact a fury has been sparked, and another piece asking: how come we haven't been told these villagers' names?
Al Jazeera's blog ran a list of the names, noted how much of the media, itself included, focused on the backlash for Afghan-US relations, but then asked:
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.
I don't have much use for Al Jazeera, as I find this state-sponsored Arabic news station always taking the "progressive" line when it injects into US national debates and being selective about what crises they cover in the Arab world and elsewhere. So politically-correct has ALJ become to the prognoscenti that you don't dare criticize it, but I do.
This blog struck the right note, however, and it is indeed curious why no Western correspondent is trying to interview the villagers or Afghan and US officials about the aftermath. Possibly it's just too dangerous. Possibly the US military is keeping people away to try to avoid any incitement of mobs bent on retaliation.
There are questions to ask about this scene.
How is it possible to get drunk enough to commit this sort of crime without anyone noticing, if alcohol is barred from the post?
Most people get drunk and then pass out if they are drinking under stress, or maybe they get in a bar fight or a fistfight. But to methodically go and shoot and maim 16 people? To go door to door, and also try to burn their bodies as if to destroy evidence? How was that possible?
How was it possible for a man drunk enough not to remember the incident itself to also methodically take aim, kill people one after another, and then plan enought to burn their bodies?
Why was there no one to stop him -- a US soldier, an Afghan police man? Aren't we training police to take over their own security? No one was available to take this murderer down as he methodically went house to house? What's up with that? What happened?
There are reports of multiple shooters and maybe there were, but no other suspects have been arrested. But it does continue to be a mystery why a soldier does the exact opposite of what he was supposedly deployed for: protecting Afghan villagers from the people who do the most killing in Afghanistan -- who have massacred 80 percent of the civilians murdered -- the Taliban. And goes after the most vulnerable representatives of the Afghan people -- women and children asleep in their homes -- as some way to express anger and frustration with the way the Afghans have not changed despite 10 years of American efforts. So, this is the moment (if there weren't thousands of moments before this over the years) when you realize "we became like them" and you leave as I've discussed earlier.
Perhaps people will draw "lessons learned" from this horror. About not deploying 38-year-old family men with mortgages they can't pay during a recession, despite their combat pay? About the ravages of too many deployments in a row, and PTSD?
Bret A. Moore in The New Republic gives it a more sophisticated take, explaining it as not just possibly PTSD, but PTSD and "co-morbidity" with other conditions. Naturally, you have to wonder what other pre-combat conditions this man had that led him to get in car accidents and beat women and defraud pensioners -- and not only do all those things, but evade responsibility and punishment for them.
The military generally bars felons from service, although if you have only two misdemeanors, a supervisor can rule that you should be admitted. Different services seem to have different requirements as to how much of a criminal record you can have and still hope to get into the military to solve your life's problems. Did Bales hide his fraud charges to gain membership? Or did a financial crime not "count" in the military's examination?
What stands out for me in this story is the failure to manage expectations, both by this individual himself, and in general with recruits and the army.
There's this entire fiction that has now embedded itself everywhere in our culture of "support our troops". This fiction works like this: the army is a job -- an occupation where you can "have a career". By itself, it is something unquestionably worthy of public support because it is made up of people who "just do their job". In all kinds of advertising in the media and on campuses and in neighbourhoods, we're told that young people should be joining the armed services to they can learn an occupation and get a salary, housing, and health insurance for free in exchange for just some training and maybe brief deployments here and there.
It's indicative that Bayles wife talked about how they had dreamed he would be deployed to Germany or the Bahamas, i.e. not in combat but just in defense -- but instead, he goes not only to Iraq, but Afghanistan -- and now this horror.
It's much the same with Manning and his reasons for joining up and his expectations about deployment -- and the crime he is charged with, damaging US interests and harming sources through leaking a quarter million classified cables.
There just doesn't seem to be enough propagandizing of what the real mission is and the real purpose of the army, which isn't about "having a career" or "learning a trade" or being deployed to fun foreign locations. Instead, it's about war-fighting ruthless, cunning and deadly enemies who don't play fair, and secondarily, protecting of civilians in awful conflict zones. There just isn't enough said about that -- and even when there is a war deployment, all sorts of other agendas are invoked -- building schools, training police, helping farmers, patrolling roads, etc. The actual job here -- killing the enemy -- just isn't really featured or discussed or propagandized for (and you can't really blame an army for propagandizing -- they have done so throughout history).
In past wars, it was either the call of duty, or the defense of the motherland, or helping allies, or beating back evil enemies who committed atrocities, but careers? No, because there was a draft and you served a limited time, or there wasn't a draft, but you saw it as a civic duty with a time limit.
That's what's missing without it is portrayed today. And that's why a few times in forums, you'll see people remark that contrary to intuition, if we had a draft, this kind of case might not happen. For one, there'd be enough people so that you wouldn't have to deploy anyone three times in a row. For another, you wouldn't have this notion that you are making a "career" and hoping to get to the Bahamas and pay for your house as a function of being a soldier.
That's not to say you shouldn't have a professional army and careers in the military -- without that, everyone would be a bumbling recruit. But there's just something about the ratio here and the expectations created -- the professional recruitment shouldn't be just anybody who seems to pass a basic physical and doesn't have too bad of a criminal record, but really trained and vetted cadres -- which is maybe what can happen when you have a draft to fill up the ranks with a wider variety of people.
Of course, you could hardly get a draft requirement passed today, with sentiment against the wars and with young people's reculctance to make sacrifices when their main beef now is that they feel they are already too much in debt from their school loans and "the one percent" should somehow alleviate their cost burden.
But even so, you can ask why we have the entire fiction of the "career" and "learning a trade" and not really having to deploy any place but Germany. It's precisely that sort of advertising that has led us to bunches of soldiers who piss on the dead, thoughtlessly burn a holy book, and then go on a rampage and shoot 16 villagers -- and of course much more, that we don't even hear about.
I can't help thinking that it's precisely the disconnect between that "learn an occupation and have a career" advertising campaign and the realities of depoloyment in conflict zones that is in fact setting up many people for the crisis of psychology they do experience. If they faced the fact that the opportunity in fact involved taking on a short-term risk for not a lot of pay because there was a nasty job to do and persons of integrity were required to do it, might the outcome turn out differently?
People recruited to do a job of defeating an enemy might turn out to do better at this awful and complex job than those recruited with a fable about learning how to operate sophisticated equipment so that they can get a better industrial job after deployment.