So what do we know about Staff Sgt Robert Bales, accused of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians last week and burning many of the bodies?
According to The New York Times, he had been “deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade, a record of combat that at the very least suggests high levels of stress”, and that, according to “a senior American official”, he “just snapped”, although the Times also noted that his record was not unusual amongst American soldiers at this point.
MSNBC says he was “an 11-year military veteran with a string of commendations for good conduct” but also noted his financial troubles and an assault on a girlfriend in 2002. The LA Times emphasised his and his wife’s distress about being passed over for promotion. The Telegraph in London found acquaintances to declare him a “happy guy, full of life”. Bales, we were also told by a number of outlets, had seen a comrade’s leg blown off the day before the massacre.
What do we know of his alleged victims? We know 11 of them came from one family, and we’ve seen some photos, but beyond that, virtually nothing. Nearly all of the coverage has focused on Bales, the likely impact on US-Afghan relations and the timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops.
Bales may indeed have been suffering from a mental illness induced by repeated exposure to combat, or high levels of stress. He may be an example of the high cost of America’s obsession with sometimes-multiple foreign interventions.
But the immediate aftermath of his arrest makes for an intriguing contrast with that of Pfc Bradley Manning, who is now on trial for leaking footage of the 2007 Apache helicopter slayings in Baghdad and the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables.
When Manning’s arrest was revealed by Wired.com in 2010, courtesy of the murky relationship between editor Kevin Poulsen and informant Adrian Lamo and subsequently picked up by the mainstream media, virtually no information was provided about Manning’s background, and certainly not any efforts from “American officials” to explain what he had done was the result of mental illness; all coverage was dominated by assumptions that Lamo’s version of events (in essence, reformed hacker reluctantly turns in confidante because of threat to lives), which subsequently changed repeatedly in key details, was accurate.
Manning’s alleged victim, of course, wasn’t anonymous Afghan civilians (whose village was reputed to harbour Taliban fighters, several reports were careful to note) but the US government’s reputation. In spite of the lack of evidence of any actual impacts beyond embarrassment, the deleterious consequences of the diplomatic cables have been repeatedly emphasised and detailed in a way that, again, is in contrast to the lack of interest in the alleged victims of Bales: the chilling effect on diplomacy, the threats to US sources, the increased likelihood of conflict through lack of trust.
Such was the alleged impact of the diplomatic cables that a senior Republican, Mike Huckabee, called for the leaker of the cables to be executed. A number of US media figures made similar calls.
So far (thankfully) calls for the execution of Bales appear thin on the ground, despite the endless fixation on whether the massacre was a “turning point” in US involvement in Afghanistan.
At the moment, Bales is being held in what the Pentagon called “state-of-the-art, medium/minimum custody facility” in Fort Leavenworth, where Manning is being held. Unlike Manning, it appears Bales won’t be held naked and in solitary confinement for his initial period of custody.