A U.S. Army soldier pleaded guilty on Wednesday to the premeditated murder of 16 Afghan civilians last year. The case represents the single most gruesome act of civilian massacre by an American soldier since the Vietnam War, but it has been all but ignored back in the United States.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales admitted guilt to 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder, seven counts of assault and various alcohol and drug charges. Reading through the indictment one charge at a time, Bales acknowledged that he committed 10 of the murders by gunfire and by burning the victims, with six others killed by gunfire alone. His admission of guilt is part of a plea bargain that will spare him the death sentence.
Bales, a decorated veteran of four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted before a court martial that he left his post at Camp Belambay in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan without leave. In two separate phases, he killed four and wounded six in the village of Alkozai, then killed 12 in the village of Najiban. The majority of the victims were women and children killed in their family homes.
«As far as why, I’ve asked that question a million times since then,» Bales said, in a calm, steady voice at the military trial. «There is not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things that I did.»
Bales will face life in prison but may be eligible for parole. This determination will be made when sentencing proceedings begin August 19.
«I then did kill her by shooting her with a firearm and burning her. This act was without legal justification,» Bales said matter-of-factly, according to reports from the hearing.
The Military v. Bales
Asked by the presiding judge, Col. Jeffrey Nance, if he acted out of self-defense or had any other legal justification for killing the villagers, Bales responded, “No, sir.” When asked if he could have avoided killing the villagers, Bales answered, “Yes, sir,” and said he «formed the intent (to kill) as I raised my weapon.» Bales indicated that he burned the villagers with the intent to kill and because cremation is «against their cultural norms.»
The details surrounding the case are spotty and, at times, contradictory. Bales admitted that he had to be reminded of details involving the murders, including the fact that kerosene was used in the burnings.
According to official findings, Bales wore Afghan clothing over his fatigues, with a bed sheet or throw rug tied as a cloak. He was armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher. Hours before the rampage, Bales and a fellow soldier were drinking whiskey together while watching “Man on Fire,” a film about revenge starring Denzel Washington. Bales was upset about a bomb blast a few days’ prior that severed a fellow soldier’s leg. He was also irritable from illegal steroid use.
Bales’ defense team also argued that he suffered from traumatic brain injury that affected his decision-making.
While U.S. authorities have cited night-vision footage of Bales’ arrest as proof that only one person was involved in the killings, eyewitnesses said there may have been more than one assailant. A March 2012 Reuters report indicated that neighbors and relatives of one of the victims saw a group of American soldiers open fire at homes in the Panjwayi district around 2 a.m. the night of the killings.
A March 2011 New York Times article includes the testimony of Abdul Hadi, who survived the attack. He attested that there was more than one soldier involved in the raid, and that helicopters and flares were seen.
According to the London Daily Mail, a mother of six reported that a large group of soldiers were involved in the attack that killed her husband.
“When they shot dead my husband, I tried to drag him into the house, they’d shot him in the head so his brain was all over my hands. I had to use a bowl for his blood,” the woman said. “I saw more than 20 people when I looked out the house. The Americans pointed their guns at me and threatened me, telling me not to leave the house or they’d kill me.”
The same report recounted the testimony of an 8-year-old girl named Noorbinak — whose father was killed in the attack — stating that «one man entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights.” The brother of another victim said his nephews and nieces saw “numerous soldiers” with headlamps and lighted guns, according to the Daily Mail.
Based on eyewitness testimony, an Afghan parliamentary probe team announced that up to 20 American soldiers were involved in the killings, with air support from two helicopters.
“The villages are one and a half kilometre from the American military base,” said Hamidzai Lali, a member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan and an investigator in the raid probe. “We are convinced that one soldier cannot kill so many people in two villages within one hour at the same time.”
However, no evidence has been provided to support the multiple soldiers theory, and even the probe team conceded that there was not enough proof to justify blaming the U.S. of a possible cover-up.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Bales’ home base in Washington state, has had its share of controversy since the Afghan War started.
One such incident happened in 2010, when Pfc. Andrew Holmes, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, Spc. Adam Winfield, Spc. Michael Wagnon and Cpl. Jeremy Morlock were charged and convicted for murder — one of three incidents between January and May of 2010 that Afghan civilians described as “thrill killings.” The five Americans were accused of collecting body parts of their Afghan victims and taking photos of American soldiers holding Afghan bodies like hunting trophies.
«He just really doesn’t have any problems with f—ing killing these people. And so we identify a guy. Gibbs makes a comment, like, you know, you guys wanna wax this guy or what?» Morlock told investigators in a taped interview. «It’s definitely not the right thing to do. But I mean, when you got a squad leader bringing you into that, that type of real, that mindset, and he believes that you’re on board with that, there’s definitely no way you wanted him to think otherwise.»
The Army now feels that these situations occur because of a lack of understanding and mutual distrust between American soldiers and the Afghan people. In 2012, the Department of Defense prepared a 75-page manual called “Insider Threats — Afghanistan: Observations, Insights, and Lessons” to help field personnel address this issue.
“Green-on-blue incidents provoke a crisis of confidence and trust among [coalition forces] working with [Afghan troops]. As a means of illuminating this insider threat, those [coalition] personnel working on Security Force Assistance Teams during 2012 that live alongside and mentor [Afghan security forces] have about 200 times the risk of being murdered by an [Afghan security force] member than a U.S. police officer has of being murdered in the line of duty by a perpetrator,” reads an excerpt of the manual, published by the Wall Street Journal.
This sense of apathy, however, is not just a military problem. In the aftermath of Bales’ killings, there were no Congressional hearings about the incident, no speeches preaching about how the system must be changed, no media coverage of American mothers crying and beating the walls in disgust of the children lost. There was nothing. In fact, there have been calls of support for Bales on Facebook.
The hard truth is that most Americans are emotionally detached from the situation occurring in Afghanistan. Unlike the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., the average American cannot connect to the plight of the average Afghani — who has suffered under American military presence for more than a decade — and is ignorant of the sum of American foreign intervention.
As reported by CBS News, “As the war drags on, it remains a faraway puzzle for many Americans. Max Boot, a military historian and defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, has called Afghanistan the ‘Who Cares?’ war. ‘Few, it seems, do, except for service personnel and their families,’ he wrote recently. ‘It is almost as if the war isn’t happening at all.’”