Robert Bales
© unknownStaff Sgt. Robert Bales during an exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California
The medicalization of wartime atrocities

The story of Robert Bales, mass murderer, has pretty much disappeared from the headlines: news of the grisly killing spree, during which he slaughtered nine children and eight adults, has been displaced by the sudden "discovery" that 100,000-plus US soldiers are heavily medicated with anti-depressants and other drugs, as well as much talk of "PTSD" and discussion of how multiple deployments are "unfair" to those who have signed up to fight America's imperialist wars.

In short, the excuse-making has begun. In a signal that the case may never even come to trial - an outcome the US military is no doubt desperately hoping for - it has been announced that a "sanity hearing" will precede the actual trial. This is unusual in itself: normal procedure is to go ahead with the court martial first, and determine if the perpetrator was mentally incapacitated at the time of the crime later. As the military's Manual for Court Martial puts it:
"An accused lacking the mental capacity to understand the punishment to be suffered or the reason for imposition of the death sentence may not be put to death during any period when such incapacity exists. The accused is presumed to have such mental capacity. If a substantial question is raised as to whether the accused lacks capacity, the convening authority then exercising general court martial jurisdiction over the accused shall order a hearing on the question."
Whether to hold such a hearing before referral of charges is up to "the convening authority," i.e. Bales's commanding officer, and, presumably, higher ups in the Pentagon who are no doubt choreographing every legal step in this case. Bales's defense lawyer, John Henry Browne, may have submitted a request for a sanity hearing, but the Convening Authority was under no obligation to grant it.

Under the regulations governing these hearings, the sanity board considering Bales's case can consist of a single individual, or several, all of whom must be either physicians or clinical psychologists. These wise men are tasked with answering four key questions:
  1. Did Bales have "a severe mental defect" when he committed his horrific crime? In order to qualify as "severe," this defect may "not include an abnormality manifested only by repeated criminal or otherwise antisocial conduct," nor does it include "nonpsychotic behavior disorders or personality defects."
  2. Is Bales crazy? Or, as the Manual puts it, "What is the clinical psychiatric diagnosis?"
  3. When he went out and slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians as if they were cattle, did Bales "appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his or her conduct?"
  4. Is Bales "able to understand the nature of the proceedings against" him and is he able to "cooperate intelligently" with defense counsel?
Wired's "Danger Room" is telling us the standards for meeting the requirements of a successful insanity defense are oh-so-hard (and, implicitly, unfair), but this is clearly untrue: the regulations give the sanity board wide scope, leaving it up to them to determine if "other appropriate questions" are to be included in their report.

This piece from Bloomberg informs us that, in a secret Pentagon briefing to reporters, an anonymous former judge advocate said he can't recall a single instance in which someone got off claiming the effects of PTSD, which is furthermore described as the defense's "only card."

Perhaps the judge can recall the case of Lt. William Calley, whose crimes - eerily similar to Bales's, albeit on a grander scale - have come to signify the folly of the Vietnam war. Calley got off practically scot free, but what's interesting is why he didn't pursue an insanity plea.

Calley was examined by two witch doctors psychiatrists who concluded he suffered from "a serious psychotic condition." According to columnist Jack Anderson, writing in 1972, one of them gave Calley "a battery of tests, including an experimental one under marijuana, in September 1970. ... The results reflect[ed] a very serious personality and mental disorder which has the tendency to become full-blown and uncontrollable under such circumstances as may have existed at the My Lai atrocities." The other quack psychologist solemnly concurred:
"The picture of an over-inhibited personality structure fraught with internal conflict between impulses and repressive forces is sharply etched."
Armed with this potential ammunition, Calley's defense counsel, described by Anderson as "dignified old George Latimer, the former military appeals judge who was both father figure and chief counsel for Calley," conferred with his client, and ultimately decided not to use the report at trial. As Anderson put it:
"In its harshest terms, the question was: Would Calley want to risk being branded a murderer or a madman? Both the lieutenant and Latimer decided irrevocably against claiming insanity."
That was a different era, a time - which now seems like it must have occurred in an alternate universe - when Americans didn't wear their mental illnesses like badges of honor. It was long before the Crazy Community had "come out of the closet," so to speak, and gone on Oprah to discuss their inner nuttiness, which they had so successfully hidden from their spouses and closest friends. Back then, it was considered shameful not to take responsibility for one's actions: unlike Bales, who claims not to remember a thing about the killings, Calley admitted his crime but claimed he had been ordered to carry out the killings.

These days, however, it is quite a different story: our culture of victimology, in which no one is responsible for anything, is a get-out-of-jail-free card, and Americans have no compunctions about playing it. The archaic concept of shame has been banished from the culture, to be replaced by a medicalized "explanation" (i.e. excuse) for our every action. In post-imperial America, a decadent and declining empire with the morals of Nero's Rome, there is no good, and no evil - only helpless individuals buffeted about by their abusive parents, their "traumas," and their medications.

The trial is likely to be long and involved, and I make no predictions as to the outcome: however, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he gets off with life imprisonment, or less. While the rules and atmosphere of a military court make it harder for the defense to pull off a PTSD plea, the "no blame" cultural ethos permeates every aspect of American society, including our military, and the decision to precede the trial with a sanity hearing may prefigure just such an outcome.

In the meantime, while the "mainstream" media is running interviews with Bales's wife, who appears to be in complete denial, and writing long articles on the generally debilitated mental state of our military, questions as to how the military has conducted its investigation arise.

Why did it take the army three weeks to return to the village and collect forensic evidence? The official excuse is that they didn't want to antagonize angry villagers - except, as Marcy Wheeler points out, the villagers had vacated the crime scenes, which were undoubtedly compromised in the interim. This hardly portends a desire to get the facts in this case. In addition, Marcy raises some intriguing questions about the number of soldiers involved: the official story is just one, Bales, but discrepancies in that narrative combined with the testimony of Afghan witnesses indicate otherwise.

Our "mainstream" media isn't interested in these discrepancies, however: they are too busy thinking up excuses for Bales, their PTSD poster boy: they're eager to spin another sob story about how our poor persecuted Praetorians are carrying the Burden of Empire all by their lonesomes, ever since we got rid of the draft and went to a professional army. The narrative is usually capped by a solemn sermon on the need for "shared sacrifice," whatever that may mean.

What's striking about all this is the focus on Bales instead of his victims. Was he on medications? What about that "traumatic" brain injury? Had he been drinking? What was his childhood like - his marriage, his work history? Isn't it true that "he loved children" (touted by Matt Lauer)?

As for the victims, even their names are rarely reported.

John Henry Browne has declared he intends to put "the war" on trial, but this is less promising than it sounds. Unless he intends to claim, as Calley did, that his client was only following orders, what this no doubt means is that the "stress" and "strain" of warfare, as conducted under the current rules of engagement, is at fault, and that his client succumbed. This is not putting the war on trial - it is pandering to the same culture of irresponsibility that gave rise to this war in the first place.

That soldiers who grew up in and absorbed this cultural ethos are, in a sense, insane, is an argument I doubt Browne would care to make. Yet how else can we describe the guilt-free shame-free amorality that allows us to devastate an entire region in the name of "liberation" and "peace"? When Madeleine Albright replied to a question from journalist Leslie Stahl about the half a million children who died in Iraq due to US sanctions, averring "We think the price is worth it," she was expressing a view that used to be considered crazy. If Bales is insane, then so are the policymakers who made this war possible and prosecuted it long after its utility and justice were in serious doubt.