Monday, March 19, 2012

Robert Bales is not the victim

This past weekend, DoD released the identify of the NCO accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians last weekend. SSG Robert Bales, 38, assigned to 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry Regiment, 3d Stryker BCT, 2d Infantry Division of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington was flown to Fort Leavenworth within the past couple of days.

Which left major newspaper outlets tripping over each other to explain why it was everyone's fault except SSG Bales' (again, assuming he committed the murders based on his apparent confession) that 16 Afghan men, women, and children ended up dead. For example:
I'm not going to pick on the NY Times article, although it was not free of the same sort of innuendo we're about to pick apart. It just was merely the least offensive of the three. So let's take a look at Robert Bales, victim of society, through the lens of the Washington Post and Bloomberg news.

1. "Years of overseas duty on a sergeant's salary had squeezed the family's resources to the breaking point" via the WaPo. Here you have an "he snapped because of financial troubles because he didn't get paid much as a sergeant" - which begins to take the onus of these crimes off of Bales' shoulders and places them on the American people for screwing down it's military.

Let's take a closer look at this. An E-6 Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army with over 10 years of service, living in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area would receive per month: $3243 in base pay, $1650 in housing allowance (this is tax-free), and $348 in subsistence allowance (also tax-free). At $5241 per month, SSG Bales had a yearly income of roughly $62,890. The median income for the Tacoma, Washington area in 2010 was $48,673. That's right, SSG Bales made about $14,219 more than the median income for his area because he was a soldier. In fact, his deployments would have netted him more than $750 more per month with Family Separation Allowance, Imminent Danger Pay, and in not paying Federal income tax on his base pay. Deploying is financially good for soldiers, not disadvantageous. (For more on all of this, see Jimmy Sky's excellent post on military pay and benefits.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but if you're going to say that he was near a breaking point because of his pay you need to back it up. But you can't because it's a wrong statement. I don't doubt that Bales had financial problems, but if he did his financial troubles were because he made bad or unlucky choices that had nothing to do with the Army. So no, dear Washington Post, it wasn't his meager salary due to recurring deployments that caused him to do what he (allegedly) did - your statement is factually incorrect.

2. Not getting promoted caused him stress. All three stories mention Bales' not making Sergeant First Class on the 2011 promotion list and that they were all disappointed. I'm sure it sucks not making a promotion list, but you have to be realistic about these things. All three articles mention legal problems for Bales, including arrests or charges for DUI and hit-and-run (there seems to be some info missing about convictions, etc, so it's not clear what the final disposition of these cases were, but suffice to say something happened). Staff Sergeants do get promoted with that sort of baggage, but not often. And it's getting harder and harder as personnel cuts loom. Even a passing mention of it on any of these or related issues were on an NCOER, the odds are a promotion board would not promote him. So while that may be stressful for him and his family, it was not a promotion he was owed or was due to him. Promotions are earned and blemishes on record like those suggested by these stories prevent promotions. While an interesting data point in the "things that weighed on SSG Bales", chalk up not getting promoted caveated by "may have prevented this through his own actions."

3. Repeated deployments, PTSD, TBI, etc. This is the touchiest of all the topics covered by these three stories and generally speaking they did an okay job. All acknowledge that we don't know how much these three factors interact and what exactly they cause people to do. There are some undercurrents however that the Army failed to screen Bales out of his latest deployment. First and foremost, the Army generally does a poor job of screening for, diagnosing, and treating TBI and PTSD. If the current screening hasn't changed too much, it relies extensively on self reporting. So if Bales did want to redeploy, as friends of his say he expressed that he wanted to get back into the fight, then passing the screening is as easy as pie. The Army has to screen a lot people and there just isn't a cost-effective and effective test to manage this problem. Period. Not excusing the Army for this, but there isn't a viable solution as yet. If Bales wanted to deploy, no current screening mechanisms were going to stop him. But for a bigger picture, here are some numbers: between 1 and 2 million servicemembers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, well over 100,000 of them have deployed three or more times, and 300,000 to 600,000 are suffering from PTSD. So far only 1 person in that large population went out and killed 16 civilians.

4. "He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and then literally overnight that changed." Apparently his lawyer said this and I can't believe Bloomberg didn't refute this. Even if some knucklehead said he would never deploy again, he was a healthy NCO in the U.S. Army. Guess what: you can't make - or believe - promises like that. It's not how the military works. Deployment orders suck and are super hard on families, but they are a reality of military life. Again, it wasn't as if the Army broke it's promise - it has no institutional ability to promise one healthy soldier it would never deploy him again.

This probably reads as nit-picking or sticking up for the Army, but it's not. Major news outlets are trying to find an angle and lens from which to view this guy and I get that. But all that's coming out are reasons why the Army is at fault for what happened - included some gross inaccuracies or outright lies, outlined here - and not SSG Bales. It seems there were a lot of factors that probably caused his state of mind that day - I can only guess that they include financial problems, TBI, PTSD, family stress, unhappiness with how his career was progressing - but most of those things fall on SSG Bales, not the Army. Could the Army have done some things differently? Undoubtedly - but stop blaming the Army for what this man did. Do your research, journalists, and stop making excuses for this guy. If the 16 dead were Americans, would we be doing this hand-wringing over why the Army screwed down the perpetrator? (I draw your attention to Fred Wellman's comments in that link.) Being a soldier is hard and while command has many responsibilities, commanders are not responsible for everything. Hundreds of thousands of troops have gone through what SSG Bales has gone through - or worse - and none of them shot 16 Afghan civilians.

This entire situation is sad - for the Army, for Bales and his family and his unit, and especially for the Afghans who lost loved ones. Let's keep perspective on that. And let's not take the easy way out and blame The Man for the actions of a man because it fits your narrative. That's not justice and it's irresponsible. Robert Bales is not the victim here - the victims are in Afghanistan.


  1. I certainly agree with what's written in this blog. I personally cannot stand the American mass media for spinning stories like this in a way to maximize ratings, and not actualities. Not one spin being placed on this story can justify the murder of innocent civilians. The American public generally takes things at face value, and the reporting I’ve seen on this story does nothing for the already difficult mission being carried out by the same Soldiers that the American mass media claims to support. There is more to supporting Soldiers than just posting a photo and mentioning their names on TV.

    I saw Bales’ attorney on Fort Leavenworth today, and it gave me an uneasy feeling for some reason. At the same time, we at least live in a country where we can be represented, tried, and punished by a court of law, regardless of the trials played out on television. To ensure the success of our judicial system, we as a society should consume only the facts, and leave the rhetoric to fictional daytime television. I can only imagine how difficult it could be to find an unbiased jury in cases like this without the unfounded spin of our mass media.

  2. I hate to sound callous, but I agree with you on the first point. NPR recently had a special about how the collapse of the housing market left many military families in debt when they were forced to move.

    Sorry, but that's the risk you take when you buy a house in a military market. (Plus, the USG sponsored some bills to alleviate the stress of deflated house prices).

    I've always told myself that I'll buy a house when I retire. Sound strategy then, sound strategy now.

  3. I know people that have been through a lot worse than SSG Bales and they didn't go on a killing spree. What bothers me about this is that all of us that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will now be brushed as "victims" that have become crazed killers that can't adapt to civilian life. I've seen this bad movie before, it happened to Vietnam veterans because of LT Calley.

  4. Maybe he got tired of losing on order. Or being the pigeon in a shooting gallery. For that the Army can be blamed.

  5. Excellent post, Jason. I made sure I read the names.

    I wonder if people do get that they are basically hurting veterans in the future with this meme of, "anyone of those guys could snap." It's been years since I've read anything about Forensics, but we don't really understand human behavior or murder very well. Why in one situation will one person murder, while the next (the vast majority) will not?

    During my forensics rotation at UNMC all those years ago, I witnessed a child autopsy. My attending, an expert in child abuse cases as I recall, asked me to bunch up my fist and then she held it against a bruise on the child's body. She was trying to make a point about pattern injury.

    I'm not sure I've ever shared that story with anyone unless I've shared it here already. I rarely talk about the specifics of my experience, to date. It feels like telling tales.

    - Madhu

  6. Everyone is using this act to peddle their favorite hobby horse. The situation is unique and while further investigation and study may reveal some of those hobby horses contributed, we are a long way from understanding what really happened.

    I am entirely sympathetic to the strain these repeated deployments are causing. I am shocked and saddened that people are so careless of our military while professing to care. And yet, it's not hard to beat the war drum and have people rally. After everything we've seen the past decade or so. It's astonishing.

    - Madhu

  7. I forgot to add, thanks for including the numbers of people who have deployed multiple times. Via the numbers, the situation is a unique one. Thank heavens for that.

    - Madhu

  8. Yet another example of a failure in command and leadership, sorry but Bales is just a symptom of a dysfunctional military. DoD now reminds me very much of DoD in the early 1970s

  9. Is is also entirely possible that SSG Bales calculated that the situation in Afghanistan was so volatile that his actions would lead to an expedited drawdown. He may not have "snapped" at all.

  10. Thanks for your comments everyone. I have no idea why he did this, but I do know that you can't just say, "Oh he was under a lot of stress and it wasn't really his fault." That's not an explanation given how rare incidents like this are in spite of the common occurrence of the situation. And Madhu, the repeated deployments are a strain. But with over 10 years of service you have at least one opportunity to get out of the Army, likely more. If it was too much then you just walk.

    Hal and bdoran - it's easy to place blame on the faceless bureaucracy and it's sometimes warranted. But like everything else burden needs to proven and your saying it's the Army's or DoD's failure then you need to back that statement up. For bdoran, deployments aren't the Army's doing - war is at the purview of the political class and the Army is one of its tools. Blame your congressman if you don't like the fact that we keep sending soldiers to war zones. Also, look at my comment above. It's an all-volunteer force, which doesn't give anyone the right to abuse the service, but gives soldiers the right to get out if it's not working for them. By re-enlisting, SSG Bales said he was fine and good with the way things were. Hal: how exactly is the military dysfunctional? How would Bales be a symptom of it said dysfunction? How did Bales' command fail him? They may have, but that isn't the default position. Both of your statements may be correct (I think that they're not), but they stand without substantiation. Feel free to actually argue against what I wrote instead of engaging in rhetoric.

  11. Anon @ 0852—Is is also entirely possible that SSG Bales calculated that the situation in Afghanistan was so volatile that his actions would lead to an expedited drawdown. He may not have "snapped" at all.

    I'm sorry, but this is total insanity. Yes, it is possible that this one dude felt so strongly about the American presence in Afghanistan that he was willing to murder 16 civilians in cold blood and potentially sacrifice his own personal freedom for the rest of his days in order to speed US withdrawal, but it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely. And by "exceedingly unlikely" I mean There Is No Effing Way.

  12. Left out of this rational and well-researched posting is the one item which definitely put a large amount of stress on SSGT Bales' financial situation. He is personally responsible for over $1 million in settlement costs to the victims of his financial fraud from an earlier career. From 1996-2000, directly before enlisting, Robert Bales was a financial advisor in Ohio, operating under the brokerage company Michael Patterson, Inc. He perpetuated intentional financial crimes against at least one client, Gary K. Liebschner, and was found responsible for a number of malicious unethical acts. Upon the large settlement being handed down, he then immediately enlisted the following year after the events of 9/11. This can be verified by searching for ROBERT BALES, (CRD# 2765462) under FINRA's BrokerCheck service.

    Based upon those facts, and my personal and ongoing experience in financial services, I believe SSGT Bales may be an opportunistic predator who got caught and then fled his previous responsibilities to live out a fantasy in a faraway war. He may have pursued a new life as a soldier out of shame for his crimes, or he may have been looking for a way to escape his financial responsibilities in repaying his victim. Frankly, he may in fact be a true sociopath, and does not feel any remorse for his behavior. In any case, we have an individual who clearly values his own life and well-being well above those of others, a characteristic that is thankfully uncommon among our everyday front-line servicemen and women.

  13. Anon @11:54 - that news broke after I posted this so it obviously wasn't included. I'm hesitant to comment on it because the effects of these allegations would require crawling into SSG Bales' head - which I'm not about to do. Suffice to say there were a number of stressors in his life - as there are for nearly everyone - and if true, this most likely would be one of them. The point of my post was to show the lazy thinking behind the excuses and buck-passing in major media outlets for everyone but Bales. That said, thanks for your comments as it's certainly part of the complex mosaic that this case is becoming.

  14. Jason, thanks for clearly articulating accurate facts as a counterpoint to the media speculation. As a retired law enforcement person in the JBLM area, I witnessed quite a few soldiers commit unexplainable crimes way before the GWOT. (This includes an Army aviator who morphed into the Spokane Serial Killer). Heck, when I took command of a tank platoon in Germany in the mid-70s, two of my soldiers had just brutally stabbed a local cab driver to death, because they "wanted to get out of going to the field." You are also spot-on regarding E-6 pay and allowances. I'm a mid-level (non-management) state employee now. When I deployed to Iraq as a SSG CID Agent, (admittedly with 23 years TIS, but that's another story), I came close to doubling my salary, between base pay, BAH, and all of the other benefits. Finally, let me point out that if SSG Bales was having mortgage problems, it wasn't as a result of frequent PCS moves: His only duty station in 10 years was Ft Lewis.
    I'm glad I discovered this excellent blog via the IAVA Daily News's well worth a bookmark!

  15. Don't forget he's also a conman who defrauded an elderly couple out of their life savings close to a million dollars. He was under investigation for fraud, unauthorized trading and unsuitable investments and had debts of more than 1.6 million. Not your typical SSgt even without the massacre.

  16. Jason,
    You raised some great points and I’m glad you started with the low hanging fruit of actual service pay. I do think, however, you could have gone further. First, what is unique is that SSgt Bales decided to act upon Afghans and not his fellow troops. If you narrow down the criteria to single multiple shootings (which takes out the small unit “kill teams” or singular incidents of fratricide or killing foreign nationals) every other one I’m aware of resulted in someone snapping and killing other Americans. So why is SSgt Bales different?
    To reach the second point, I think it begins by realizing our focus is too small by looking only at active duty servicemembers, to determine if SSgt Bales is the only one. Obviously he snapped on a deployment, but what about those who wait until they return home? Or after leaving service? That’s a hard nut to crack both practically (how on earth do you peel back the effects from military service with what may have happened to them in the civilian world) and obviously the further removed from military service makes it even harder. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask will there be another SSgt Bales in the future in the U.S., or have there been some already?

    The real story here is not the guilt or punishment of SSgt Bales. That process may take awhile, but if the facts remain essentially unchanged, it is likely a jury of his peers will at some ask themselves the question “I know X amount of people as bad off as this soldier and they didn’t snap, what precludes me from convicting him?” and then weighing his competence both for conviction and sentencing purposes. The facts may be unique and repugnant, but the process will be anything but novel and likely result in a conviction and a sentence of life in prison or death. The real question, which I think you gave short thrift to, is whether we could do a better job of finding out who the SSgt Bales are before they act? Granted the sheer numbers are/were daunting, and when you think about the number of people who have endured similar stress to the SSgt and haven’t acted out, and the vast, vast majority of which will, in their own ways, become productive parts of our society, there aren’t many to find, at least in the short term. But when I ask about identifying the next SSgt, I don’t limit myself to time in service.

    Regardless of how troops return to civilian life, it’s inevitable, they all get there. And some of them are dumped there. I can say that for a fact having watched it for several years up close. But it’s understandable. No one gets promoted for taking time out of their day to counsel some outgoing troublemaker. They get promoted for having their troops prepared to carry out their mission and then actually doing it. Once the decision is made a soldier or Marine is no longer part of that equation, they’re immediately a handicap or a liability to carrying out the mission. And that’s the system we have. And if we’re then putting people back on the street, on another deployment, that are likely to become violent, and we suspect, or even know that, that’s a problem for all of us, whether big DoD, or that lieutenant who is trying to clear out space in his platoon for another working body likes it or not. That I think is the real question, and like it or not, that is the Army’s, the Marine Corps’, the Navy’s and the Air Force’s responsibility. Now given the size of the problem, which you aptly described, that’s a huge task, but it’s one that can only be ignored to the serious detriment to all of us. For a long time. The guilt of killing 16 Afghans correctly belongs to SSgt Bales, but that doesn’t absolve the Army or its sister services from their duty in identifying his ilk both in terms of deployments and in return to civilian life.

  17. What I dont understand is why anyone gives a rats ass about his possible reasons. He killed 16 innocent civilians, many of them children. End of fing story.

  18. I think 3 and 4 combine. The DoD's current overuse of serial redeployments (and stop-losses) is not 'a fact of life.' It's a fact of the last ten years' policies, and it isn't irreversible or unavoidable. If the military wasn't intent on wringing every available tour out of current personnel, they might have enough flexibility to step back and more closely consider A) if Bale was in shape to re-deploy, and B) if Bale should have been re-deployed to the front line instead of a less taxing station.

    If the DoD needs more personnel, it should stop spending so much money on gold-plated R&D projects costing tens of billions and put more of its money into attracting new recruits. Its current policy runs its people too hard and it was only a matter of time until someone snapped.

    None of this does excuse Bales' actions one bit; I don't think these factors should mitigate his sentence at all. The DoD, though, should consider these factors to help avoid the next Bale. Wherever the guilt lies, the Bale tragedy is going to be very expensive for the military and so the military has an interest in preventing another like it.

  19. Jonathan - You're confusing military policy with political policy. The advice of general and flog officers notwithstanding, it is the President who keeps calling for soldiers for Iraq (well not anymore, but obviously until last year) and Afghanistan. In spite of a massive spike in the need for soldiers, the Army end strength was only slightly increased. Which requires Congress to pass a law to allow. It's not as if the Army can say "We really could use 100K more troops. Let's go recruit them." They need authorization.

    Also, the Army has met its recruiting goals in every year (except one I think) since 2001. So recruiting is not a problem - the Army gets the soldiers it needs for the slots they have open and they are not authorized to recruit more than that without Congress acting to do so. I won't get into R&D here as it's a bit beyond our line of discussion.

    Obviously I'm totally in agreement that this whole incident lies with Bales. But look more closely at the facts. The Army has its hands tied in how it can mitigate multiple deployments out of its soldiers. And while multiple deployments may be a contributing factor to soldiers developing PTSD, it's important to remember that there is absolutely no correlation of any kind between PTSD and violence to anyone other than the person who has it and in very rare cases their immediate families. There may any number of reasons why Bales did what he allegedly did, but PTSD is almost certainly not one of them.

  20. Jason,

    To say theat there is "absolutely no correlation" is not true. For instance:

    I'd also argue that one reason the Army (and the other services) made mission during the dog days of the wars was because they were cycling people through multiple deployments rather than bringing in new soldiers and Marines though to be fair that has much to do with the budget and the political will to expand the force.

    I'd look to World War II where if I remember right, many of the veterans of 1942-1943 were discharged from service prior to the final campaigns of 1944-1945 and where we were beginning to bump into the "bottom of the barrel" for addtional recruits. Not as bad as the Brits, who did run out of manpower though.

    I can't tell you what were the actual recruting waivers and policies in place in 2005, but I can tell you I had a recruiter tell me that if I had a guy plead down a felony for meth prodution to felony possession he could get him in. He already had one conviction for meth previously. That was jarring how hard they were having to work back then to make mission and mad me wonder who they were signing up the last two days of every month.

  21. Through whole site goes this stitching effect, added nicely to forms as well – I consider this a good example.
    Voice identification

  22. Good post. My question reeks of conspiracy but that doesn't mean that it isn't unreasonable: did Bales act alone?

    1. double negatives get me into trouble: should read "My question reeks of conspiracy but that doesn't mean that it is unreasonable:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.