Loose Canons

No Man Can Fight Forever

Reflections on the Robert Bales case.

By 3.26.12

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Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales stands accused of murdering 17 Afghani civilians in two different villages on the night of 11 March. From the charges themselves (which include six counts of assault, bringing the total number of civilians believed hurt to 23) we know the army believes it has sufficient evidence to support the charges of premeditated murder which, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, can carry the death penalty.

And there is much we do not know. Bales' civilian lawyer has said several times that his client has no memory of the events of that night, obviously thinking of an insanity plea. Under the UCMJ, that requires the defense to prove the insanity by "clear and convincing" evidence, a much lower standard than the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard by which Bales would or would not be found guilty.

There is a cacophony of other facts we -- and probably the defense and prosecution -- still don't know, and all will likely affect the results of the continuing investigation and probable trial. What did Bales say when he turned himself in after the incidents? What did he do when he supposedly returned to his base between the two killing sprees -- if two there were -- and did anyone speak to him or even know he was there?

This is no "CSI Miami" episode. We don't know if any bullets matching Bales' weapons were recovered, what other forensic evidence there may be or what witnesses there may be who can positively identify Bales. The army has reportedly paid $50,000 in compensation to the family of each of the dead and $11,000 to each of the wounded. How does that affect the witnesses' credibility?

The ongoing investigation will continue for weeks or months after which an Article 32 hearing -- the military equivalent of a grand jury -- will be convened before a military judge. That hearing will result in a decision on whether Bales will be brought to trial.

There is every reason to be confident in the military justice system. It is equal to or better than the civilian criminal justice system in every way, not the least of which is that the members of a court martial panel are drawn from the military not the random civilian population. Justice will be done and it must be our highest priority.

The context of Bales' case is important. First, this is not another My Lai. From everything we know now, this is the act of one man not a group or unit. Second, it does not appear to be a politically created media event such as the Fallujah shootings in Iraq years ago that resulted in the courts martial of several Marines, all of whom were acquitted. Third, it's also nothing like some of the inevitable and trivial incidents in war, such as the widely reported case of some Marines urinating on Taliban corpses some months ago. This is different. This is, apparently, the wanton killing of civilians.

There are other issues we fail to consider at our peril, and at great peril to our military.

These things can happen even among the most well-rested, battle-ready troops. But too many of ours, as great as they are, do not fall into that category.

I still have my notes of a conversation that occurred one day in Baghdad. I was speaking to the general commanding an infantry division. (I can't name him because of the rules established for the interview.) After we talked about a whole bunch of other things, I asked him about the strain on the force of repeated deployments and the very tough operating conditions in Iraq.

He told me about a young captain who he said was one of his best young warriors. The man had been on active duty for only four years and was in the middle of his third year-long deployment, one in Afghanistan and then two in Iraq. The captain's wife had left him and his personal life was a shambles. Yet he soldiered on, his general's protective eye on him.

That was in December 2005, about six and a half years ago. Our forces, already at war for four years, were wearing out. Now we're past a decade and still at it. Too many Marines have served three, four or even more combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are many heroes among them, and many more who just keep slogging through endless patrols in the hills of Afghanistan because they are dedicated to each other and their nation's chosen mission for them. But it's not enough.

Morale among our troops, we're constantly told, is very high. And it probably is, especially among the fliers and the irrepressible special operations guys. But what about the grunts, the guys who slog through the heat every day on endless patrols, frequently fired on by Taliban and others but unable to return fire because absurd rules of engagement have to be complied with before anyone pulls a trigger or calls in an air strike? As I understand these rules, if a Taliban shoots at one of our guys and then runs away from his weapon, you can't shoot him because he's unarmed.

The troops hear what their generals tell Congress. For how many years have we heard that our "progress" in Iraq and Afghanistan is "fragile and reversible"? If it's fragile, why haven't we done what it takes to solidify it? If it's reversible, why are we sacrificing the lives and well-being of troops to an already-failed cause?

I have another note from the Baghdad trip I need to relate. At a dinner hosted by Gen. Martin Dempsey, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I sat with two young colonels whose names I shall omit. I asked them about how their troops were doing and what effects on them did they see from the long war in Iraq. How long was too long?

One of them said, "If you want to break this army, break your word to it." We promised our troops a mission they could accomplish, a war they could win and our comprehensive support. We've broken those promises in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The futility of the way we have fought this war must be felt by everyone fighting it. As I've written here often, if you don't fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably. The corollary to that is that you will also weaken the spirit and readiness of your forces to fight again. Not permanently. Americans are resilient, and our armed forces are still the best in the world. But it may be a long time before we can unbreak our promises to them and restore their readiness to fight again.

No man can fight forever. It took Odysseus a decade to fight his way back from Troy. We are now in our eleventh year of war in Afghanistan. It's now time to bring our men home.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.