George Packer and the Unfathomable

Why did an American soldier murder Afghan children in their beds?

by , March 21, 2012

We’ve heard all about staff sergeant Robert Bales, who murdered 16 Afghan civilians – most of them children – and is now being held by the US military, although he has yet to be formally charged. We’ve heard about his alleged PTSD, his marital problems, his “good deeds,” the shock and surprise of his friends and neighbors who thought he was a wonderful guy. But what about the victims? Who are they? What about their families? Why haven’t we heard much of anything about them?

The answer to this last question is fairly obvious: with the American media, it’s all about … the Americans! Never mind the Afghans: they’re just “collateral damage.” The real “human interest” story here is about Bales, for whom the excuse-making has already begun. He’s hired himself an expensive lawyer – the same one who defended the “Barefoot Bandit” – and Fox News is already playing him up as some kind of hero, or, at least, a sympathetic figure to be pitied rather than punished.

As for the victims, they are nameless, faceless stick figures, at least in nearly all US news accounts: their fate is no more a concern than the fate of the hundreds of thousands who died in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else the US boot alights. This carnage is simply the price of empire, which our news media takes into account with barely a nod as it “reports” on our various wars of conquest. As Madeleine Albright put it when asked about the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children and elderly due to US sanctions: “We think the price is worth it.” Madame Albright wasn’t just speaking for the US government when she uttered those words, but giving expression to a widely held – albeit implicit – belief: that the victims of US foreign policy are worth less than the supposed beneficiaries (i.e. us).

In searching for some reporting on the victims of the Bales massacre, I came across a single story, published on the website of National Public Radio, which starts out with this gut-wrenching lede:

Afghans say they’re so inured to civilians killed in wars that they bury their dead and move on. That’s not so easy for Muhammad Wazir. He lost his mother, his wife, a sister-in-law, a brother, a nephew, his four daughters and two of his sons in last week’s mass shooting in two villages.

“’My little boy, Habib Shah, is the only one left alive, and I love him very much,’ says Wazir.

The boy cried next to his father as Wazir spoke by cellphone. The 4-year-old is his favorite, Wazir says, and that’s why he took the boy as he traveled to the eastern side of Kandahar province last week. While they were away, tragedy struck their tiny mud brick village in Panjwai district, southwest of Kandahar City.”

Imagine coming home from a business trip to discover 11 family members had been murdered – by the very people who are supposedly “protecting” them! I imagine little Habib is going to join the Taliban when he grows up, or perhaps even before then. We have earned such enemies many times over, in many different places all over the world. And when they exact vengeance, we whine and cry and squeal about “terrorism.” Has a more narcissistic, callous, willfully blind people ever existed anywhere on earth? The Romans, for all their brutality, never expected mercy from their enemies, and the British, for all their arrogance, at least tried to mollify the natives. We, on the other hand, don’t care to even know about the suffering of our foreign subjects: we blank out their cries of despair. Only NPR is reporting that father’s lament: “All my dreams are buried.”

Yes, I know it’s a lot easier to comb through records in America: the US military no doubt has the entire district in which the atrocity occurred on lockdown, and reporting from Afghanistan isn’t easy. Yet NPR managed to get a reporter in there: where is the rest of the “mainstream” media?

Well, they’re busy combing through public records here in America, interviewing Bales’s friends and family: in short, they’re taking the easy path. This has revealed some interesting facts about the accused killer, which deviates from the “he-was-a-lover-of-puppy-dogs-and-a-patriot” narrative we’ve been getting so far.

Yes, it’s true he signed up for the military right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and by all accounts was a fervent believer in the American cause in Iraq. He is quoted in a “news” article published on the US Army’s web site in 2009 saying that, during the battle of Najaf,

“’I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day,’ Bales said now a member of 2-3 Inf. headquarters, ‘for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us. I think that’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm’s way like that.”

The difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy: I wonder how many Afghans make that increasingly elusive distinction? How many Iraqis? To a great deal of the rest of the world, the Americans are the bad guys. As the US presses on with its endless wars of conquest “liberation,” undeterred by the growing hatred generated worldwide by Washington’s arrogance, one wonders how and when we’ll feel the “blowback” inevitably coming our way.

While it’s normal for questions to arise out of something as horrific as this mass killing, it is downright weird to read the dozens of sympathetic accounts of Bales’s life before he became a mass murderer. The excuse-making of the right-wing pundits on Fox News is one thing: that, after all, is to be expected. Far creepier, however, are the some of the more “complex” explanations for Bales’s crime, notably one proffered by Iraq war supporter and neocon-enabler George Packer, in the New Yorker, who denounces “the smugness of the antiwar crowd” and instructs us to avoid “easy condemnations.” After all, says Packer,

Three deployments over six years in Iraq, including one during the “surge” with intense fighting. A wound that cost him part of his foot, then a head injury in a vehicle accident. Frustration at being unable to find and kill the enemy. Over the years, as the deployments pile up and the mission gets lost, he starts to sound jaded, coarsened. Ten years in, he misses out on being promoted to sergeant first class, and he doesn’t land the recruiting job he wanted, or the coveted posting to Germany or Italy. Instead, he’s sent back to the wars—this time to a remote combat outpost in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where he sees a buddy lose a leg to a land mine.

Back home, his wife loses her job when Washington Mutual goes under, and there are mortgage problems on their house in Washington state. You couldn’t write a more succinct history of what went wrong in the decade after September 11th.”

Packer goes on to aver that “In a sense, none of these facts matter,” while going on about the “bright line” between murdering children in their sleep and the effects of PTSD or “whatever.” But in what sense does it matter?

On this subject, Packer is less precise. He complains about “the tiny number of Americans who belong to our all-volunteer military.” Everybody, in his view, should have the opportunity to become a war criminal. He goes on to imply we all bear some mysterious collective responsibility, because we haven’t paid enough attention to the conflict. His main concern, however, is to counter those “smug” antiwar types:

It’s easy and currently fashionable to sneer at the entire ten-year effort. To say that it was doomed from the start, and no one but a fool would try to change Afghanistan. Didn’t we learned anything from the British and the Soviets? Wasn’t this the graveyard of empires? When would we ever realize we can’t police the world or occupy Muslim countries? It looks pretty obvious now. It gets less obvious when you go back to where we were after September 11th and give it an honest reckoning.”

We didn’t know: we couldn’t know. It’s not my fault!

Packer is particularly sensitive to the question of fault, as are all the “liberal hawks” who danced to the War Party’s tune back when it was popular to do so. Now that it’s not so popular, particularly in the salons where a top New Yorker writer cares to be seen, he – like so many others – wants to absolve himself, even if he can’t entirely cover his tracks.

Packer is right, however, to characterize Bales’s litany of pre-massacre troubles as a “succinct history of what went wrong in the decade after September 11th.” As reporters delve more deeply into Bales’s history the initial narrative of the patriotic Good Soldier is giving way to a darker portrait of a one-time financial shark who ripped off an investor for over a million dollars and then shortly afterward joined the US military for perhaps the same reasons one joins the French Foreign Legion.

At the height of the real estate bubble Sgt. Bales and his wife bought not one but two houses: when the bubble burst, they lost one to foreclosure almost immediately – but not before it was condemned by the local authorities. Since they couldn’t pay for it, they figured, why not let it fall into serious disrepair? Like all too many American homeowners during the heady days of the real estate craze, they used their two homes as cash cows, constantly refinancing and remortgaging until the market crashed and their indebtedness caught up with them. Days before the murders Bales’s wife put their second home on the market.

Bales also had a few brushes with the law: a conviction for assault at a motel involving a former girlfriend, which resulted in him being assigned to take “anger management” classes. His anger sated – or else stored away for later use – he subsequently went on to become involved in a car wreck: he fled from the scene and was found in the woods by police officers, his head bleeding from a wound. That about sums up the life of Robert Bales: one long flight from responsibility.

In this, Bales is surely a man of his time. His is the American story, circa 2012. In spite of a judgement against Bales in a court of law, that investor who lost a million eventually gave up pursuing Bales for the bucks. In spite of credible reporting that shows the battle of Najaf was an unjustifiable massacre of religious pilgrims rather than a battle against the “bad guys,” Bales boasted of how “proud” he was to have been a part of it.

Look how changeable is this creature, Boobus Americanus: one minute he’s saying how different we are because we separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” and before you know it he’s murdering Afghan children in their beds and burning their bodies beyond recognition. One minute he’s signing papers solemnly swearing he’ll pay back his many mortgages, and the next he’s in default and walks away. A flight from debt, a flight from responsibility, a flight from reality – all the evasions flow easily into one another, like the currents of a river.

A child has limited responsibility for his or her actions, which is why children are treated differently than adults under the law. A child has no real conception of the laws of cause and effect, let alone the laws of morality: a mentally competent adult, however, is characterized as such by his knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. I have every expectation the defense is going to try to prove Bales had lost that knowledge, at least temporarily, but I would argue that, as a typical American of the new millennium, Bales never acquired any such knowledge in the first place.

An unnaturally extended childhood is the hallmark of the typical American, especially the males, and in an age in which the very concept of morality is unfashionable –will you please stop being so “judgmental”! – it is no longer considered either necessary or desirable to know right from wrong. How many times are we confronted with that old standby “Who are you to judge?” No one is to blame for anything: we’re a nation of victims. PTSD, financial problems, marital woes, battlefield injuries – Packer entertains all these excuses, holds them up to the light, and in the end confesses he cannot fathom Bales’s motives or mental state. When the history of our war in Afghanistan is written, he avers,

I hope Sergeant Bales will appear in these accounts not as a symbol of the American heart of darkness, or a victim of a heartless military machine and a checked-out public, or a case study of post-traumatic stress disorder, but as the author—if he is—of the single worst episode of the war, for reasons that might remain known only to him.”

Cliches with vague literary allusions like “heart of darkness” don’t quite cover it, although there is something undeniably dark about a race of spoiled children wreaking such unprecedented havoc on the world stage. Even more sinister, however, is the macabre belief of these overgrown children that they are an “exceptional” race, the agency by which the world is to be saved from itself. A mass murderer with a messiah complex – that about sums up the way in which we are seen, today, by the rest of the world. Sgt. Bales simply took it upon himself to act out this role in real life: that’s why Packer, who cheered as we “liberated” Iraq, and will no doubt cheer louder when the bombs begin falling on Tehran, cannot fathom it, doesn’t want to fathom it, and won’t ever fathom it.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I have a review of Glenn Greenwald’s recent book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, in the current issue of The American Conservative. The piece is online here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo