Killing and the Vicious Imagination

Finding justice in Afghanistan.

Posted May 06, 2012

First author is Todd Junkins

“Stalking from home to home, a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early on Sunday. …Residents of three villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province described a terrifying string of attacks in which the soldier, who had walked more than a mile from his base, tried door after door, eventually breaking in to kill within three separate houses. The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them… (Shah & Bowley, 2012).”

With a brief look into the psychological and physical pressures of war, perhaps we can assess whether Bales was a “bad apple” or a prisoner of a system that encouraged vicious imagination.

As we have discussed (Part 1, Part 2), a person can have a moral orientation developed either from critical developmental periods or traumatic experiences. Nurturing both our decision-making functions of the Imagination Ethic (perspective, foresight, and reason), and our emotional regulation systems of the Engagement Ethic (relational engagement with face-to-face relationships), are critical for moderating the Safety Ethic, the source of self-protective actions like impulsive killing. We can see how combat situations can prime someone to act from a Safety Ethic, rather than an Engagement Ethic. But Bales did more than react. He made plans and carried them out over an extended period of time. Combining the Safety Ethic with the Imagination Ethic, the vicious imagination arises.

To unpack what might have happened in this situation we look at three things: the person, the situation and the system

First, Sergeant Robert Bales

Who is Sergeant Bales? First and foremost he saw himself as a soldier. Tim Burgess, a neighbor described Bales as a “gung-ho Army guy…He still wanted to see action even though he had been wounded (Dao, 2012).”

From this perspective, several questions arise. Did Bales receive appropriate nurturing? Did trauma interrupt his nurturing at any point? The answers to these questions are hard to know. No doubt the Bales’ family is under close scrutiny. However, despite the media frenzy little negative information has been reported regarding Bales and his family. All we have are reports from others.

He was the youngest of five boys in a “close-knit family” where his neighbors respected him, and even remembered him as a mentor (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012). His fellow solders described him as a “model soldier who was polite, professional and exceptionally cool under fire.” He is reported to have often encouraged new recruits to treat noncombatants respectfully (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012).

Was Bales just a heartless, angry man (a bad apple)?

Bales was involved in many harrowing situations over his four deployments and yet he demonstrated concern for others, and not just for his fellow soldiers. One journalist identified Staff Sergeant Bales as a company leader and reported a heroic scene where Bales carried wounded Iraqi civilians out of a dangerous zone. Bales said at the time: “We’d go in, find some people that we could help, because there were a bunch of dead people we couldn’t throw them on a litter and bring them out to the casualty collection point (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012).”

Bales is reported as saying, “I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day [the day he carried wounded Iraqi civilians],” 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 (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012).”

These excerpts indicate a clear mind, empathy, and a desire to properly discriminate. All of these point to a functioning Engagement Ethic, and an Imagination Ethic working to find ways to help the injured.

More recently Bales was reported as having a positive attitude, encouraging other soldiers to be polite and professional. But in the same breath warned other soldiers to “have a plan to kill everyone you meet if you need to” (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012).” Question: How does one hold in balance empathy and a constant need for protection?

Was Bales traumatized?

In his years of deployments, Sergeant Bales endured several serious wounds. He reportedly lost part of his foot in one incident (Dao, 2012). More seriously, in 2010 Bales’ Humvee flipped over resulting in a head injury. He was treated for a minor traumatic brain injury, “which in chronic cases can lead to cognitive problems and a loss of impulse control (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012).”  Question: How might the brain injury have factored into Bales’ decision making process?

Sergeant Bales’ was also deployed four times. However, Army officials reported that four combat tours were not unusual for these two wars. Col. Thomas W. Collins, an Army spokesman, stated “Lots of soldiers have four deployments, and they’re not accused of things like this.”

Second, the system and situation.

Systems also affect our behavior. We have discussed how systems create situations that can simply overwhelm our normal orientations, values, and decision-making processes. Dehumanization and deindividuation (reduction of self-awareness) are commonplace in war situations and characterize “total systems”. And, like any dominating total system, war can break down an individual’s inner moral leanings. Combat zones are prime “atrocity-producing situations (Hedges, 2011).”

For example, Neil Shea describes his disturbing journey with a particularly vicious group of soldiers in Afghanistan: A Gathering Menace. Traveling with U.S. troops gives insights into the recent massacre. He describes random acts of violence that include shooting dogs, demolishing Afghan homes, and murderous and violently sexualized humor. He also describes however the constant violence the soldiers endure themselves, “the subhuman wash of aggression and the small episodes of violence military men and women cycle through daily… (Shea, 2012).” He expresses anxiety about their stability. “I felt I was watching some of the men unravel toward serious crimes, if,in fact, they had not already committed them elsewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. Evil or atrocity often explodes from a furnace built by the steady accretion of small, unchallenged wrongs (Shea, 2012).” He also worries about a lack of support for these men and women. Soldiers can be “barely restrained, their switches unreliable after years of war…we have no good method for dealing with men who grow too dangerous. We vaguely hope their anger does not spill over, or come home. It is not simple (Shea, 2012).”

Platoons seemingly form their own cultures within the larger culture of war. As Shea describes in his article, these cultural narratives and conditioned cultural responses can also foster killing. As a stress release, creative thinking is drawn to vicious imagination. Question: What narratives drove Robert Bales?

What support did Bales have access to while deployed or at home?

Those intimately involved with veterans note a lack of support for veteran mental health. In fact, one lawyer who works with soldiers accused of violent crimes claimed the Pentagon lacks the resources to provide this support (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012). Studies of PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans are reporting rates as high as 31 percent. Further, it seems multiple deployments are a risk factor in developing PTSD. In terms of scientific research, the relationship between violent behavior and PTSD has not been conclusively established and more work on the subject is needed (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012). However, stories of the mental costs of war are not hard to find. 

While there is some dispute about causality, there have been a startling number of veteran suicides since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. The The United States Department of Veterans Affairs reports: “Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 500,000 calls and made more than 18,000 life-saving rescues. In 2009, VA added the anonymous online chat that has since helped more than 28,000 people (United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012).”

Sergeant Bales was in serious enough battles to have a body scarred with war related injuries, lose part of his foot and sustain a head injury (Dao, 2012). Moreover, his lawyer, John Henry Browne, reported that Bales had just witnessed a land mine blow up under his fellow soldier, resulting in the loss of his leg. Military officials reported Bales was then drinking that night, but his lawyer refutes this claim (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012). How was this accumulating trauma affecting Bales?

Did Bales have support or stress on the homefront?

How often did he get home and engage in other experiences that might assist him in dealing with his war time experiences? Were there other pressures outside of the combat situation? Family? Money?

If fact there were. The Sergeant’s house was listed as a short sale three days prior to the killings. The property was more than $50,000 in debt (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012). The Army reported “his annual tax-free compensation when he was deployed to a war zone, including housing and food allowances, came to around $68,000 (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012).” His neighbors saw in him signs of emotional distress and several encounters with the police. He was arrested for drunk driving in 2005 and involved in a hit-and-run accident in 2008 (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012). Both, however, were later dropped (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012). Bales also missed out on an important military promotion what would have included a much needed pay raise (Warrick, Morello, & Thompson, 2012).

Clearly the process toward a mass killing is complicated. As one reporter summed it up, “So far, however, his profile — including a history of war injuries, financial pressures, disappointment about being passed over for promotion, brushes with law enforcement and a wife who went through pregnancy and years of parenting alone — matches that of many other American soldiers and Marines. (Bumiller & Cushman Jr., 2012).” And yet, on the night of the murders, Bales was facing the toll of long periods away from his wife and children, a home in short sale, a total system of war with seemingly little help, brain trauma of some form, and then he witnessed the violent wounding of a comrade.

All three layers of personal experience, the moral self, the system, and the situation in combination can bring about killing act. Assigning responsibility and appropriate justice requires an in depth study of the elements discussed above. The alleged killer is not the only person who failed the Afghan victims. The military defense system must also provide necessary supports to enable soldiers to maintain their humanity. Those monitoring the war system needs to be reviewed, as well as the people and systems that intentionally create terror for political points. While we may not be able to totally prevent these events from happening again, hopefully through deep study and creative work we can find ways to limit their occurrence. This is important work not only for the safety of potential victims, but also the potential perpetrator in us all.

*For a more detailed look at this topic, see the chapter titled ‘An Educational Model for Teaching a Nonkilling Ethic’ in Nonkilling Psychology, published through Center for Global Nonkilling. The title is available for free in .pdf format or through Amazon.


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