For most of the media, the story regarding Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has moved to American soil. The U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians is now under watch at a base in Kansas, with a veritable full-court press ferreting out every detail of his background. Report after report puzzles over the traumas of his years in combat, the intricacies of his personal life, the personality of his lawyer, the shocked disbelief of his neighbors. The story is one of a soldier “gone rogue,” a troubled man who “snapped.” And it is a story my colleagues are telling ably, such as this look at the hidden dangers of brain injuries sustained by American combat troops or this exploration into the emotional world Bales inhabited.
But there is another part of the story that is more important, one that has been cast aside by the current media frenzy. It’s a story that remains in Afghanistan and begins with the names of the 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar province — including nine children — whom Bales allegedly murdered in cold blood. Here they are, as reported by al-Jazeera:
Mohamed Dawood, son of Abdullah
Khudaydad, son of Mohamed Juma
Shatarina, daughter of Sultan Mohamed
Zahra, daughter of Abdul Hamid
Nazia, daughter of Dost Mohamed
Masooma, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Farida, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Palwasha, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Nabia, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Esmatullah, daughter of Mohamed Wazir
Faizullah, son of Mohamed Wazir
Essa Mohamed, son of Mohamed Hussain
Akhtar Mohamed, son of Murrad Ali
Read these names and hear them in your head. It’s a cliché to say that casualties in this war-ravaged part of the world seem to us a statistic, but too often that’s where our interpretation of such events ends. Too often, we privilege one type of victim over another, investigate the inner mind of one kind of villain while painting another in one sweeping stroke. Men like Bales are aberrations, their crimes freak incidents; Muslim suicide bombers, on the other hand, are but a stitch in a tapestry of hate. As the longtime British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes, Bales
had no sooner returned to base than the defence experts and the think-tank boys and girls announced that he was “deranged.” Not an evil, wicked, mindless terrorist – which he would be, of course, if he had been an Afghan, especially a Taliban – but merely a guy who went crazy.
I’m not interested in likening one kind of hideous deed with another. Rather, while reporters try to understand Bales’ own troubled state, they should also consider the context from which it emerged: simply put, this slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians is a symptom of a military occupation that has gone on for over a decade, with great loss of life and no assured victory in sight. As one of Bales’ horrified neighbors told TIME: “What happened in Afghanistan is a creation of the war. That’s not the person that I knew.”
(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)
Of course, the NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan aren’t there to kill civilians. And most troops, no matter the steady accumulation of frustration and rage on the front lines, are not war-criminals-in-waiting. But war is and has always been a brutalizing thing, sparing not even its most righteous combatants. In the spring issue of the American Scholar, journalist Neil Shea sent in a dispatch from an embed with American troops in southern Afghanistan, an article pegged to what was then the latest atrocity committed by NATO forces — the January revelations that U.S. troops had defiled and urinated upon the bodies of slain Afghans.
Shea describes the violence in the soldiers’ banter, the contempt and anger some in the platoon he walks with have for the Afghans in their midst:
I felt I was watching some of the men unravel toward serious crimes, if, in fact, they had not already committed them elsewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. Evil or atrocity often explodes from a furnace built by the steady accretion of small, unchallenged wrongs. Some men in Destroyer platoon had been drifting that way for a long time.
The villain of Shea’s piece is a swaggering platoon leader who we’re told shoots dogs for fun and gratuitously smashes up Afghan homes during night raids of village compounds. In an astonishing aside, he jokes to Shea:
Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here. It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.
Again, he may be an ugly exception amid a host of well-intentioned, disciplined soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. And any number of reporters could scratch their chins over his particular experience, diagnosing his likely PTSD and the moment when he “snapped.” But what about the trauma of the Afghan civilians he terrified? What about Afghanistan’s PTSD after a decade caught between NATO bombings and misdeeds and Taliban bullying and attacks?
(MORE: Is the Army Responsible for the Afghan Massacre?)
In the area where Bales allegedly carried out his slaughter, one village elder starkly warned a reporter for Global Post of the consequences of the killings: “There is no future for the U.S. and us anymore,” he said. According to him, an earlier strike on Taliban positions actually killed some 50 civilians. “They can invest $1 million in our area, but for who? We will be gone if they will stay. Is it worth the money to build a school for nobody?” Despite all of Washington’s efforts to pursue effective counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it still has no solution for a nation that has been turned inside out by war for over 30 years.
As Fisk, the British journalist, writes, the atrocities there may not be as bad as those committed in earlier occupations — he cites the U.S. in Vietnam and the French in Algeria — but the legacy of violence is often the same. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the French brutally tried to cling to their colonial possession of Algeria, conducting bloody “pacification” campaigns, napalming villages, disappearing thousands of civilians and suspected guerrillas alike. In response, the main revolutionary faction — whose authoritarian government remains in power to this day — committed its own atrocities, gunning down peasants, settlers and collaborators.
Mouloud Feraoun, a respected Algerian novelist at the time, asked searching questions of the men supposedly fighting for his freedom:
Can people who kill innocents in cold blood be called liberators? If so, have they considered for a moment that their “violence” will engender more “violence,” will legitimize it, and will hasten its terrible manifestation?
As the revolutionary war grew apace and led to spiraling death counts, Feraoun pushed for peace and reconciliation. His efforts were snuffed out in 1962, when French paramilitaries hopped up on morphine shot him 12 times on the streets of Algiers. A line Feraoun penned earlier in despair in his journal always sticks with me: “A blade on fire stands poised over this century; it is stained with the blood of men: that of the fighters and the victims; it will form a bloody line of retribution across a useless page.” He knew that all war is hell and that — far from just one deranged man with a gun — we are all in it.
MORE: Afghanistan: Rising Anger over an American’s Rampage, but Also Fear of U.S. Departure