Sympathy for an accused murderer: What war will do to you

Why is it easier to feel for the man who allegedly gunned down civilians than for his victims?

March 26, 2012|Susan Reimer

I am ashamed to admit that my heart aches for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, and I feel almost nothing for the families of the Afghan men, women and children he is accused of killing.

It is alarming, almost horrifying, to realize that I feel this wave of sadness for him and for his wife and two young children but can find no pity for the people he is said to have methodically gunned down.

He snapped, I tell myself. He was in his fourth combat tour and had just seen the grave wounds of a comrade, and something inside him just broke apart.

They say he took his weapons, walked off the tiny base in the middle of nowhere under cover of darkness and started kicking in doors and shooting the sleeping people inside. Of course, he was out of his mind. There is no other explanation possible.

War will do that to you. Especially a war in which the enemy might disguise himself as a woman, a child or an old man. A war where battle lines and front lines — or any sign of progress — are lost in the next dust storm.

It's a war that has been fought for more than a decade by the same tiny percent of America while the rest of the country lost interest. While military parents — like me — waited and worried. While President Barack Obama and his generals searched for a way to convince the American people that they won it for us. While we looked for a way to leave without looking like we are leaving.

We have sent young men and women out to do battle and then returned them home to the bosoms of their families, and then sent them out again and brought them home again. Four times for Sergeant Bales. One commentator said that this is a kind of waterboarding — of our own troops.

The sergeant lost part of a foot and is believed to have sustained a traumatic brain injury. He may have been successful at hiding post-traumatic stress syndrome — soldiers do that to protect their careers — but he almost certainly suffered from it, if for no other reason than that his chances for PTSD increased exponentially with each deployment.

What did we expect would happen? We did this to this soldier, this husband, father and son. We rode him hard, and we put him up wet. We told him he didn't have to go back into battle, and then we sent him there anyway.

We can't possibly be surprised when one soldier just starts shooting one night. It is more surprising that it isn't 100 soldiers, that it isn't every night.

We will make a show of holding Sergeant Bales accountable, of course. It will take years. In the end, he may not even be convicted, and he certainly will not be executed. That's because we know where the blame truly lies.

That outcome will make the Afghans furious, of course. But if I do not care about their innocent dead, why would I care about their righteous anger?

This is what war does to you, I think.

War causes you to weep for the soldier who may have turned murderer, and it hardens your heart toward the victims.

War makes you crazy.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is

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