It is a tragic coda to the American presence in Afghanistan that a veteran staff sergeant is on trial for killing sleeping civilian villagers and their children without apparent provocation or purpose. Some have said this incident is reflective of the brutality of the war itself. The soldier involved seems to have become completely unbalanced in attacking without immediate provocation or in reference to a specific incident. That may be a reasonable psychological assessment, but it is not something peculiar to this particular conflict.
What is specific to Afghanistan is the incidence of combat deaths and mutilation that have occurred from passive destruction through the improvised explosive device (IED). The proliferation of these mines is as if snipers were lying in wait just below the surface of every road, village street, and hill trail. But, of course, the snipers sometimes do exist in addition to the IEDs. It’s not the typical warfare understood and experienced in the Western world where large and small armies clash in determined battle. These are Taliban tactics passed on from the Iraq war. They were also Viet Cong tactics, North Korean tactics, Malayan Communist tactics and, much earlier, Moro tactics in the Philippines. The list goes on.
The Russians experienced this same form of warfare in the 1980s during which their casualties were much higher than those of the U.S. and NATO since 2001 (14,450 to 3,230 killed). The reporting on Russian psychological casualties was negligible, but the impact of these losses on Russian military confidence was obvious. According to Pakistan’s intelligence, the functional capability of the traditional Soviet rifle regiments was substantially reduced.
This methodology of irregular small unit combat can be defeated tactically by imaginative counter-insurgency methods, but it cannot be fought against effectively over an extended period by American troops committed to traditional Geneva Convention-type rules. Decisive victories cannot be expected when the enemy is simply satisfied with inflicting pain, accepting pain, and rarely making the mistake of exposing themselves in traditional efforts to “win the field.” Eventually the American, or Russian, or British or any other trooper of the West, will resort to similar tactics. He then is in danger of being charged with losing his internal military discipline and simply becoming a “uniformed killer.” The term is unfair, but the danger is real.
In World War II and Korea the GI’s would refer to psychological breakdown as “battle-rattle.” Sometimes it rendered the serviceman unable to perform his military duties and made him fearful in the face of the enemy. Other times the result of such psychic attacks produced uncontrollable aggression. In the invasion of Normandy a junior officer of the 101st Airborne “went off his rocker” and “tommy-gunned” a group of surrendered and weaponless Germans for no clear reason. A furious captain in the 82nd Airborne, himself badly wounded, cut the throat of an injured German officer for loudly demanding attention and treatment in a crowded aid station.
Every war has stories like these, but Iraq and Afghanistan produced a special brand of breakdown. The enemy asked no quarter and gave none. The American soldier or marine at first responded with similar ferocity. However, as time wore on and America’s civilian population became less absorbed by the military aspects of the conflict, their politicians pressed the Pentagon to be “more understanding” of the Afghan people in general and. oddly enough, the enemy combatants themselves. At one point, supposedly to protect innocent civilians, new rules of engagement were posted that required American fighters to withhold fire unless or until an enemy shooter was clearly identified. These rules, introduced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and further restricted by Gen. David Petraeus, satisfied the politicians even though they left the troops effectively disarmed. Air support and artillery fire were severely limited unless identification of hostile positions was guaranteed.
The war in Afghanistan was transformed into a nation building and rebuilding exercise. As part of this unspoken theme, deals were made with local insurgent leaders, some actually Taliban members. In exchange for providing protection for reconstruction efforts, the tribal leaders of such cooperative combatant groups benefited handsomely. Meanwhile local Afghan officials would have dribbled down to them the end product of the vast corruption that occurred at provincial and federal levels. This was an environment confusingly inconsistent with the ethical standards being preached at the same time by well-meaning civil affairs units.
Back and forth the all-volunteer combat force rotated three-four times or more into and out of the war theater — and the casualties mounted. Lip service is paid to the deleterious effects of multiple tours in combat. However, the reality is that ten plus years of multiple rotations of units and the personnel therein may reinforce the professionalism of the cadre, but at the same time attrition and combat fatigue reduces the mental stability and effectiveness of core non-commissioned ranks. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales may be an example of this group.
The question must be asked as to whether collateral responsibility should be adjudged by a political and military command that has kept our military forces in the field considerably beyond their effective psychological capability. The American fighting man and woman deserve better than the self-absorbed political and military leadership they have had during the past decade.