Legions of experts are trying to fathom what drove Staff Sergeant Robert Bales to allegedly slaughter 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, on March 11. Many proximate causes have been proposed, including the strain of Bales' four military deployments; his recent financial troubles and failure to get a promotion; his repeated exposure to death and carnage; and his own injuries, including brain damage.
Seeking insights into the incident, I emailed Roy Eidelson and Stephen Soldz, past-presidents of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a non-profit that, according to its Web site, "applies psychological knowledge and expertise to promote peace, social justice, human rights, and sustainability." I first encountered their work while researching a U.S. Army program "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness." Eidelson and Soldz are critical of CSF, which seeks to boost troops' psychological resilience. Here are excerpts from their responses to my query about the Bales incident:
Eidelson: "Psychological difficulties—which can include erratic or impulsive behavior—are greater and more likely among those soldiers who have been deployed more often, those who have faced greater actual combat exposure, and those who have already experienced psychological trauma. Bales reportedly scores high on all three counts (and he seemingly didn't want to deploy this fourth time), assuming there's some validity to reports that he may have suffered from some degree of traumatic brain injury and possibly PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] as well. So it seems that there's little question he could have been recognized as belonging to a 'higher risk' category for a range of detrimental behaviors (including both suicide and homicide). Part of the problem is that this is presumably also true of thousands of other currently deployed U.S. soldiers as well.
"So a key question is whether it is only in hindsight that we can realize that Bales would have been a good candidate for non-deployment after his three tours in Iraq, and a good candidate for psychological intervention based on his experiences there. But regrettably this type of decision reflects what could be considered a commonplace 'conflict of interest' situation between the Army's mission and the welfare of an individual soldier (by the way, this is something that CSF fails to address). The Army wagered that the Afghanistan mission would benefit from Bales' participation (despite any psychological vulnerability on his part), and they lost that bet in a huge way. At best, they simultaneously hoped that Bales' deployment would not be harmful to him individually (as with any soldier in harm's way). They were clearly wrong about that as well.
“Events with very low baseline probabilities, such as Bales' massacre, are exceedingly difficult or impossible to predict with any accuracy—it’s far too likely that you'll be wrong if you predict that a specific individual will do something like this if he has no history of having done so in the past. Whatever the most proximate immediate stressor was before the massacre, it presumably wasn't sufficient on its own to lead to this horrific outcome—other conditions and pre-conditions were necessary as well. The easy prediction to make is that some soldier, somewhere, sometime, is going to pose a significant risk for doing something awful.
"The bottom line, I think, is that a universal program like CSF is not the answer in the Bales case anyway, in part because resilience training isn't likely to overcome the effects of multiple deployments, significant combat exposure, etc. And it's not at all clear that we would ultimately want a program that would miraculously accomplish that anyway, given the complex ethical issues involved in creating the 'indomitable' soldier.'"
Soldz had this to say: "This case is a profoundly disturbing illustration of an issue that is seldom mentioned by most writers on these wars, that among the major victims of the stress and psychological problems [such as PTSD] are not just the soldiers, their families, and the military and its mission (the usual victims), but the civilians under occupation…
"The military claims that aiding these civilians is a prime reason for the troops to be there, but protecting them is usually a secondary consideration. Troops are routinely taught that 'the mission' comes first. This is especially true with the field commanders, junior officers and non-commissioned officers, who, I've often been told by soldiers, tell those under their command, 'The Geneva Conventions are fine, for training. But, in the field, do whatever it takes.'
"I think that the military would be better advised to spend more time working with troops on the difficulty and strain of occupying an alien land (as distinct from deployment stress) and on the centrality to the mission of humanizing and protecting civilians at all costs than on CSF type resilience programs. In order to humanize civilians, they would have to drop their simplistic 'bad guys' rhetoric and truly help the troops understand the profound ambivalence that Afghans often have toward foreigners who they may need, but who they also fear and resent. Working through an example of 'how would you feel if Afghans invaded your neighborhood and how would you and your neighbors react' could be far more valuable than CSF.
"A universal CSF-type program is extremely unlikely to deal in any positive way with extreme instances like the Bales case. Rather, one has to reduce their likelihood by reducing the stress through reduced deployments, greater steps to encourage stressed individuals to not redeploy. Unfortunately, the latter conflicts with the supreme importance of unit cohesion in allowing the military to function. 'Loyalty' to the unit and the mission has to be redefined to include not sending those who shouldn't be sent."
Here is my take on the Bales incident. We must certainly seek to identify factors—from the neurological to the economic--that can provoke soldiers into committing war crimes, so that the military can take steps to reduce the incidence of such acts. But we should also recognize that, whatever the proximate causes of the massacre in Afghanistan turn out to be, the ultimate cause is moral and political, and all Americans bear responsibility for what happened. As long as we accept that wars are a morally acceptable way to solve problems, soldiers will continue to commit atrocities, including the killing of women and children, because that's what happens, inevitably, in wartime.
Photo of Robert Bales courtesy Wikimedia Commons.