The stench of Robert Bales’ war crimes may linger for decades, but the legal case has finally run its course.
In June, he pleaded guilty to murdering 16 Afghan villagers, taking a deal that spared him the death penalty. On Friday, a jury at Joint Base Lewis-McChord denied him any chance of parole from his life sentence.
The result is clarity. There’s no ambiguity about what Staff Sgt. Bales did, no plausible justification for it and no uncertainty about his fate.
Murders often destroy not only the lives of the murdered, but also the lives of survivors. Bales’ killing spree is an especially sickening example. He reportedly killed, maimed or orphaned 48 children in the two separate massacres he perpetrated on March 11, 2012.
Imagine the grief of one Afghan man brought to JBLM to testify to the Army sentencing jury last week. Haji Mohammad Wazir told the six-member panel that he lost his mother, wife and six of his seven children to Bales’ blood lust that March night.
Few murderers have inflicted so much agony on so many people in so few hours. And it’s hard to think of any individual who’s done as much damage to the United States and the Army in any length of time.
American troops have occupied a precarious status in Afghanistan since they helped it rid itself of Taliban rule in 2001.
Many Afghans have been grateful for the ouster of their brutal, fanatic overlords and for the struggle to keep the Taliban from returning to power. But Americans are as foreign as they come in Afghanistan’s tradition-bound, largely illiterate and often anti-Western society.
U.S. soldiers are often viewed with suspicion, fear and incomprehension in much of the country. Yet the Army represents the United States; soldiers are the only Americans many Afghans will ever see. It doesn’t take many crimes or violations of Islamic custom to turn them against the Army and America itself.
In prosecuting Bales, the Army wisely brought relatives of victims to attend and testify in person during the criminal proceedings. Some of these visitors from the other side of the planet looked as if they’d come from another century – a good measure of how alien we look to them.
We can only hope that what they saw was a nation setting aside the arrogance of power and attempting to hold one of its own accountable. We hope they return to their villages with accounts of an Army seeking a measure of justice for Afghan villagers and demonstrating that these crimes are not who we are as a people.