Army on trial too as Sgt. Robert Bales faces charges for Afghanistan shootings

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged Friday for the Afghanistan shootings, but Congress must also probe the Pentagon over the way it screens soldiers sent back to war after an injury.

Spc. Ryan Hallock/DVIDS/AP PHOTO/File
Sgt. Robert Bales takes part in exercises at Fort Irwin, Calif., last year. It is still not known if Bales, who allegedly massacred 17 Afghans, was ever diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but even if he had been that alone would not have prevented him from being sent back to war. The Army is reviewing all its mental health programs and its screening process in light of the March 11 shooting spree.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the soldier suspected in the most violent shooting rampage against civilians in the Afghanistan war, has now been charged with 17 counts of murder. As more is learned about his background and the events of March 11, much of the media has focused on one question: Why?

Why did an infantryman on his fourth tour of duty and described as a “model soldier” and affectionate father allegedly leave his base and murder Afghan families while they slept?

Bales’s attorney says his client was not ready to return to combat because of past injuries and remaining emotional trauma, and that the Pentagon must bear some responsibility.

MONITOR'S VIEW: Lessons from the Afghanistan shooting

Indeed, that is the question to be asked outside Bales’s coming trial: Who in the Army should be held accountable in order to ensure that soldiers with impulsive violent tendencies are not sent to war zones? The future of America’s role in Afghanistan depends on it.

It goes without saying that Bales must now face a trial. But those in the US government and military who overlooked the warning signs and deployed a potentially at-risk soldier should bear some sort of culpability.

Two million soldiers have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and about 800,000 have completed multiple deployments. Among those soldiers who’ve seen combat, a Pew survey found that 49 percent say they suffered from post-traumatic stress. And last year, the military diagnosed more than 30,000 cases of traumatic brain injury.

“It’s surprising this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, given the amount of time we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Michael Waddington, a lawyer for service members accused of violent crimes.

Congress must investigate whether the Pentagon has enough resources and the best types of screening to diagnose and help returning service members. The Army says it has spent $710 million in behavioral health care since 2007 and doubled the number of its mental-health workers. Is that enough?

Whether brain injury played a part in the alleged actions of Bales is still not clear. But the military personnel who deployed him must be questioned to reveal the basis for sending him to the front lines and whether the Army was aware of problems in his life.

With the Iraq war officially ended and the US military preparing to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, there should not be personnel shortages that would force the military to send a soldier with a questionable medical profile on a fourth deployment.

After the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American soldiers, the media and prosecutors focused on the actions of “bad apples” like Lynndie England – an easy out and one that does not address the larger, systemic problem. The same sort of coverup cannot be allowed in the Bales’s case.

Philip Zimbardo, the noted social psychologist who ran the now infamous Stanford Prison experiment, testified as an expert witness during hearings about Abu Ghraib. He has emphasized that while people are always accountable for their behavior, their actions are often the product of a dysfunctional situation or environment.

“Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it,” said Dr. Zimbardo in an interview with Wired. “Understanding why somebody did something – where that ‘why’ has to do with situational influences – leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.”

It is up to a military court to now rule if Bales was mentally unstable at the time of the shooting. In the meantime, the Pentagon must also face scrutiny over the way it makes decisions for sending soldiers back to a war zone after an injury.

It cannot allow a similar incident to happen again.

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