A daily look at war, sports, and everything in between, by Amy Davidson.March 17, 2012
Losing Sergeant Bales
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales began a series of journeys a decade ago, by plane and car and Humvee and on foot. He started out and has ended up, at least for now, in the Midwest: he is from Ohio, and, on Friday, was flown to Kansas, to the prison at Fort Leavenworth. Bales had gone to Iraq three times; in 2007, in Najaf, in the middle of a battle, his unit was sent to protect a helicopter that had crashed down: ”It was like a match lit up. It looked like a toy with a candle lit underneath it,” he said at the time, according to an Army news release. In 2010, he was driving in a Humvee when it rolled over, and his head was banged up. He flew to Afghanistan in December—his lawyer, John Henry Browne, told the Times that he didn’t want to go:The family was counting on him not being redeployed…He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over.
Military officials had kept Bales’s name secret since last Sunday, when he left his base and walked by himself for about a mile until he came to a village house, and went inside. When he walked out of that house he went to another, and then another. Bales has two children of his own, a girl and boy ages three and four. In the three houses he allegedly shot and killed nine children, four of them under the age of six, and seven grown-ups, too.
Bales is thirty-eight. His namelessness was never going to last long, or be useful. (It still hasn’t been released officially: Bales’s name was leaked, and first reported by Fox News.) The explanation was that his wife and children needed to be kept safe, but they were moved from their home in Lake Tapps, Washington, and sent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord days ago. (Reporters who walked up to their house found a front porch “cluttered with empty boxes and a snow sled, while toys, a barbecue grill and a weathered hot tub sat in the fenced backyard,” according to the Times.) Transporting Bales hastily from Afghanistan to Kuwait only made both of those countries angry, in Kuwait’s case because the press figured it out before the government there did.
Without a name, Bales had been a phantom of suppositions. Browne had begun to make some of them solid, as had military officials who spoke to the press. Browne told reporters that Bales had lost part of a foot in Iraq; that was in addition to the head injury. He also said that Bales saw a friend’s leg blown off last week.
Military officials told the Times that Bales had been drinking the night of the murders, and that he was having trouble with his wife. Browne said that the drinking story was “very offensive,” according to the Post, and that Bales had a “very strong marriage.” Browne has hardly said a sentence that wouldn’t fit in a a closing statement in a defense built around post-traumatic stress disorder or diminished capacity—the loving husband and father broken by the war. But not all explanations can double as absolutions. One shouldn’t stigmatize veterans by implying that this is normal behavior; but one doesn’t want to isolate them, or leave them stranded on a difficult path, by cheerfully failing to recognize real pain.
The decision to pack Bales on a plane and out of Afghanistan may lead to other journeys. Will the villagers who saw him that night, like the woman who saw another woman taken by her hair and slammed against a wall, be brought to the trial to testify? (The answer may turn on Bales’s right to confront his accusers.) The dead left behind in the villages had names and stories and maybe strong marriages, too. We saw some of their faces in images in which mourners lifted up quilts to show their bodies. Now we are getting snapshots of Bales; neither set should banish the other.
Saturday, 17 March 2012
Close Read: Losing Sergeant Bales : The New Yorker