By Andrew Revord
At the time of this writing, the U.S. will have spent $514 billion and over 10 years on the war in Afghanistan. 1918 U.S. servicemen and women have lost their lives in the war so far, which has been a slow and tedious effort to rout the Taliban, build up Afghanistan’s secuity forces and gain the trust of the Afghan people.
And all of these sacrifices might count for next to nothing thanks to Army staff sgt. Robert Bales, who snuck out of his base and shot and killed 16 Afghan villagers on the early morning of Mar. 11.
Obviously, Bales actions won’t do the U.S. any favors in the war. The killings come off the heels of a Quran burning on a U.S. base last month, which sparked riots around the country that left many Afghans and a few U.S. and coalition troops dead, and a leaked video of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban. Whatever trust the Afghans might have had in the U.S. has probably eroded.
But for as much damage as Bales caused himself, he also revealed even deeper damage that might be responsible in causing him to snap. No, the war has not caused most U.S. soldiers to become murderers, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t touched every one of them deeply. Even those troops who make it home alive and apparently unscathed are casualties of war.
Clearly, they’re casualties we’ve ignored for too long. They might even be casualties we helped create.
Most of Bales’ friends, family and military colleagues have expressed shock that he would do such a thing, describing him as a kind friend, loving husband and father and a good soldier. Bales, who joined the Army with a new sense of patriotism after 9/11, was on his fourth tour of duty after having served three in Iraq.
Some have pointed to difficulties in Bales’ life as causes for the shooting. Bales was deep in debt and had been denied a promotion by the Army last year that his wife said “hurt him deeply.” Bales had also suffered a head injury and lost a part of his foot on previous tours of duty. Just a day before he allegedly committed the act, Bales saw one of his friends get his leg blown off by a land mine.
Maybe outside factors did play a part in Bales’ massacre. Maybe he was always unstable; no one would expect any rational person to do what he did, even under the same traumatic circumstances. But it’s clear the psychological situation our men and women in uniform are in hasn’t recieved enough attention.
Americans’ attitudes towards the Afghan war have been paradoxical. We generally have mixed feelings about the war and might even oppose it, but most of us want to “support the troops.” So, we tell an all-volunteer military that they are “heroes” and have them fight a war we don’t understand or want to fight ourselves in a strange land thousands of miles away.
In other words, we’ve been washing our hands of a conflict while expecting others to fight it for us, believe it makes sense and somehow be completely unaffected by it at the end.
In any war, it is hard for soldiers to rationalize seeing their friends, innocents and even the enemy hurt and killed after so long. But the way we’ve though about the war (or haven’t thought about it at all), we’ve only made that harder.
Bales’ actions might have reaffirmed most people’s negative attitutes about the outcome and cost of the Afghan war. But even once the war is over and we’ve figured out what those are, we’ll be faced with the bigger issue of figuring how to take care of our returning veterans and their needs.
Because as much as we might want to deny it, they’re not wind-up toys.