The trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness among troops and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of the Staff Sergeant.
In the early morning hours of March 11, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left Camp Belambay base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, visited two villages and killed 16 Afghans, 9 of whom were children. SSG. Bales’s defense team is arguing that a mix of “alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids” in the defendant’s system should raise questions about what his state of mind was during the killings. These substances along with the “kinetic and high-pressure” environment appear to be the major points of their defense.
These statements were made as Army prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they will pursue the case as a capital crime, meaning that SSG. Bales potentially faces the death penalty if convicted. The last US military execution was a hanging carried out in April of 1961 and while there have been military capital convictions since then (15) almost all of them have either been overturned, commuted, are in the appeals process, or a stay of execution has been issued (in the case of Ronald Gray).
SSG. Bales’s case is also unique because of those on the military’s death row, he would be the only one charged with killing civilians in a combat zone. The others awaiting execution have all either committed capital crimes against civilians in the United States or have killed (or attempted to kill) fellow members of the armed services.
While a capital conviction, in a court martial, can be secured by a unanimous vote of the jury, the signature of the President is required to approve the execution. Speaking about capital punishment generally in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama wrote
“While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”
Does the murder of 16 people, including 9 children meet the threshold described above? Does the President’s perspective differ in the case of the military? In recent years capital punishment has been a non-starter in American politics. Some states have pushed bans forward through their legislatures, but the discussion on the Federal level has been non-existent. Where there is advocacy it tends to focus on the racial and socioeconomic inequalities presented in the execution of the death penalty (and the judicial system at large) and on its uselessness as a deterrent to crime rather than a moral critique of the state’s right to end life.
Back to the context in which this will play out, the military justice system, this case will likely bring forward some important questions about how mental illness is recognized and confronted in the armed services. If the defense is able to successfully make it about this then it seems unlikely that a conviction will come back from the jury comprised of fellow service members who may know a colleague suffering from (or experienced themselves) a service related mental illness. The fact that SSG. Bales committed the attacks while wearing a cape, and reports of his intoxication earlier in the night, have lead some to question his mental state.
The prosecution will have to prove that mental illness and mind altering substances were not to blame and that SSG. Bales was fully aware of what he was doing. SSG. Bales made several statements shortly after the attack which suggest that this was the case, that he was lucid, coherent, and knew what he did was wrong or at the very least illegal.
There are also soft-power implications for how this case translates for Afghans or indeed the Muslim world at large. If SSG. Bales is found guilty and President Obama does not sign off on the execution it would indeed send a mixed message to the those living in countries where there has been civilian collateral damage as a result of US operations, “We won’t hold our own accountable”. If the President does sign off on the order it could have a serious impact on morale in the armed forces and could communicate that the administration does not take mental illness in the military seriously (even if it is determined that SSG. Bales was of sound mind the risk of that interpretation is still there).
I would not expect to see many comments from politicians, the President included, during the trial. There is a tendency, and rightfully so, to let the military’s judicial system sort out its own issues removed from political influence. However once a verdict is reached the ball is back in the President’s court and to some extent becomes a political issue. In many ways this case takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of SSG Bales.
Photo Credit: Eric Dietrich