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Wednesday, September 4, 2013
As reported in The Roanoke Times Aug. 24 (“Bales’ sentence leaves families unsatisfied,” news story), Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was sentenced in military court to life in prison without parole for the murder of 16 Afghan civilians, most of whom were women and children. According to the report in The New York Times Aug. 20 (“Villagers Tell of Slaughter by a Soldier in Kandahar”), Bales had been drinking and snorting Valium. That night on March 11, 2012, he went to one village, began the slaughter, returned to his quarters, reloaded and continued the massacre in another village.
In March 1968, a company of U.S. soldiers killed an estimated 500 people in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, part of the village of Son My. According to the website History.com, “American commanders had advised the soldiers of Charlie Company that all who were found in Son My could be considered VC or active VC sympathizers, and ordered them to destroy the village. When they arrived, the soldiers found no Viet Cong, but rounded up and murdered hundreds of civilians — mostly women, children and old men — in an extremely brutal fashion, including rape and torture.” When the slaughter cover-up failed, only company commander Lt. William Calley was convicted.
These were horrible, unthinkable acts — especially to those of us not exposed to combat, not inured to the daily brutal reality of death. There are rules, even in war. Use of poison gas in Syria is crossing the “red line,” according to President Obama. But there is “collateral damage” — innocent civilians die. Drone attacks hit the wrong target. It is the terrible nature of war.
In Bales’ case, he had served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — enough to harden and derange anyone. Many of our military have served multiple combat tours, some returning home damaged by post-traumatic stress disorder as well as terrible physical injuries. And “home” can be a broken place, with families ravaged by the bitter residue of war.
Bales is certainly guilty of a horrific crime, and Calley as the leader of his company was chosen as the figurehead to be punished for the slaughter at My Lai.
But doesn’t the ultimate responsibility lie with the chain of command at My Lai and faulty intelligence, and our government’s administrations that engaged our nation in these tragic, senseless and useless wars? There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that nation is lapsing into chaos as we have withdrawn, returning to religious warfare. Our 10 years in Afghanistan are leading to the same result: tribal conflict, corruption and hatred of America.
When will we learn that we cannot impose our vision of government on tribal and sectarian countries that have long histories of internal conflicts and deeply rooted differences?
Self-defense is certainly a legitimate use of force, but we have paid a dreadful price for our misguided military efforts to control other nations. What is the tribunal to judge those whose decisions have led us to that awful cost in blood and treasure? We the people are responsible to elect representatives who will use sound judgment and the restraint of reason to make decisions of such magnitude.
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