David Horsey/Los Angeles Times
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of murdering 16 villagers in Afghanistan. It is alleged he quietly walked from his base to two nearby villages and, unprovoked, started killing innocent human beings, including nine children.
This atrocity appears to be the act of one man, but the blame can be shared from coast to coast.
Our all-volunteer Army has been fighting for a decade in Afghanistan, and in Iraq as well, for most of that time. The burden of battle has fallen mainly on a tiny number of Americans -- men like Bales, who was on his fourth combat deployment. Multiple journeys into the hell of war have taken a terrible toll. The number of suicides among service members has skyrocketed, and incidences of post traumatic stress disorder among returning soldiers are so common they seem almost the norm.
As a society, we have tried to make up for the fact that so few of us share in the killing and dying by putting our troops on a pedestal. They are warriors, we say. They are the best of us. They are heroes, every one. We slap stickers in the shape of yellow ribbons on the backs of our cars and trucks, ribbons trailing the message, "Support Our Troops." Any president can win a standing ovation from Congress with a single mention of "our men and women in uniform."
Yet all this adulation and easy rhetoric conveniently glosses over the harsh truth. These men and women are not a warrior class. They are not uniformly heroic. They are not necessarily better than those who do not don a uniform. Excluding singular exceptions -- the Navy SEALs, for example -- our soldiers are people not all that different from any of us. They are well trained, but they are human, and war can and does sear the human soul and subvert the sane mind. Coping with brutality, fear, constant danger and hideous forms of death can change anyone and the longer a person is exiled in a house of slaughter, the harder it is to come back.
According to men who served with Bales, he was not an aberrant person. In a Facebook message quoted by the Seattle Times, Capt. Chris Alexander asked that Bales be kept in people's prayers. "I know his alleged crime is terrible, but he is not terrible," Alexander wrote. "He is one of the best guys I've ever served with."
If one of our best can snap and commit such a terrible crime, we should all ask ourselves if the soldiers who come from among us are being pushed to sacrifice far too much while the rest of us sacrifice nothing at all. A volunteer Army lets us off the hook. Even worse, it makes it too easy for the politicians. They speak with bravado about standing up to tyrants and bearing any burden for the sake of liberty. And then, to make good on their bold words, they find another place to take the nation into war.
Except it is not the nation that goes. It is a few men like Robert Bales, and all the yellow ribbons on all the pickup trucks in America cannot save him from the horror he has seen and the things he has done.