Afghan shooting spree: What did Sgt. Robert Bales's commander know?

The top US commander in Afghanistan says the shooting spree in which Robert Bales has been charged, as well as a recent Quran burning and a video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban are all examples of a failure of good oversight from commanders.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon Monday.

To what extent do US military commanders bear responsibility for the bad behavior of the troops in their units?

That’s the question that Pentagon officials are grappling with in the wake of the shooting spree by an American soldier that left 17 dead, as well as the burning of Qurans by US troops earlier this month – which followed closely on the heels of revelations that US Marines, including a squad leader, had urinated on dead Taliban fighters.

“Each one of those was a result of a leadership failure in some form or another,” Gen. John Allen, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged at a Pentagon briefing earlier this week.

To that end, he said he is speaking with chaplains, surgeons, and senior noncommissioned officers, “all of whom are taking the temperature, if you will” of what in military parlance is known as the “command climate” – or general state of morale and discipline – in various units.

Some wonder aloud whether the strain of repeated deployments, which could contribute to boredom or compassion fatigue or simple exhaustion – might be causing military leaders to miss or dismiss the actions of some of their soldiers. Others point out that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who stands accused of the shooting spree, was reportedly drinking alcohol in his quarters with other soldiers before he walked off the base and allegedly committed the murders.

General Allen downplayed the prevalence of such command failures. “As I think back across how many tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of our forces that have served in Afghanistan... These incidents have been so infrequent,” he argued. “And so repeated tours in Afghanistan, and prior to that, in Iraq, don’t inherently reduce the effectiveness of the force or reduce the effectiveness of small-unit leadership.”

Yet that leadership is the key to military discipline, and its breakdown, for whatever reason, can heavily impact troops in the force, officials acknowledge.

“I tell our Marines throughout the entire corps that every Marine deserves to be in a good unit led morally, ethically, and professionally,” said the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Michael Barrett, in a March 22 hearing on hazing before the House Armed Services Committee.

The apparent suicide death of Pvt. Danny Chen in Afghanistan last October ultimately led to hazing-related charges against eight fellow soldiers in his unit. 

Throughout the military, it has led to some soul searching, according to US military officials. Sergeant Major Barrett pointed out to lawmakers that within the Marine Corps, 63 percent of the force is under the age of 25. “It is well-documented that the Marine Corps is the most useful of the service organizations,” he said. “Unfortunately, hazing can manifest sometimes in organizations that conflate immaturity, youth, and arduous responsibility.” 

For this reason, he added, the force is working “diligently to change behaviors and mindsets into an effort to foster better judgment, especially among our junior leaders.”

At the same time, some officers are hopeful that as the wars draw down, the military will be able to focus more on strengthening its leaders – and by extension, troops as a whole.

“Why command climate breaks down – that’s always the $64,000 question,” says Maj. Lucas Yoho, who has deployed twice each to Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as once to the Horn of Africa

Once the exceedingly hectic pace of war is over, “I think you’re going to have more time to reflect on what a good command climate is,” he adds.

In the meantime, the inquiry into the command climate within Staff Sergeant Bales’s unit continues as the military struggles to pinpoint precisely what went wrong.

It’s a “very important question,” Allen told reporters. “We’re investigating this one very thoroughly.”

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