Who’s to blame when an injured soldier kills civilians?

March 23, 2012

“It would probably be best for the military if they could execute Bales right now and send his pieces to Afghanistan.” That’s what National Veterans Foundation founder Floyd Meshad told me this week while we were talking about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and the insanity or diminished-capacity defense Bales’s attorney apparently intends to use. Bales was formally charged today with slaughtering 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month in Kandahar.

With the politics, with the foreign relations involved, with the exceptionally high bar for proving lack of mental responsibility in military courts, it’s likely Bales is going to end up taking sole responsibility for his actions in the upcoming trial. Which is too bad. Does this case involve war crimes of the highest and most horrific order? Absolutely. But was it all Bales’s fault? Probably not so much. Not given the chain of command that put him in a position to suffer such extreme levels of post-traumatic stress.

There’s something of a frenzy of PTSD-research stories in the media this week. Did Bales have PTSD? Can PTSD make you act “insane”? What is the link between PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI)? How strong is the link between PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and violence? Is it strong enough?

Of course, there’s no totally definitive extent to which any of these tricky neurological and psychological queries can be “proved.” What we do know: that Bales served four tours of duty; that Bales was treated for TBI; and that traumatically injured brains do not operate like regular brains — because of altered cognitive functions, inconsistent memories, and the ease with which they’re overwhelmed, irritated and angered.

A lot of service members overcome their injuries and disorders, and reintegrate into their lives — bless their outstanding resilience. And very, very few have ever done something so abhorrent. But “as far as soldiers with PTSD going off the deep end, there’s no doubt that there’s a correlation,” says Meshad, who was a mental health officer with experience extracting soldiers who’d “snapped” in Vietnam. After decades of treating, and being consulted for criminal trials involving, veterans with PTSD, he literally wrote the book on defending them. Obviously, most veterans with PTSD don’t commit a crime. But attorney Brockton Hunter, who specializes in PTSD defense and co-wrote the Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court with Meshad, says that “historical research confirms waves of veteran-committed crimes after every major conflict.” The U.S. Army’s own 2009 study of a rash of violent crimes at Ft. Carson, Colorado, found a correlation between the number and intensity of soldiers’ deployments and “negative behavioral outcomes.” Hunter says: “In other words, the more you see, and do, in combat, the more likely you are to be affected by it and to act out in bad ways.”

Any doubts that many soldiers of the recent wars are suffering psychological disorders and that those disorders can profoundly affect behavior are based on too narrow a definition of  “violence.” Kyndra Rotunda, an associate professor of military and international law and executive director of the Military Law and Policy Institute and AMVETS Legal Clinic at Chapman University, bristles at the debate over whether PTSD might be unrelated to violence. Eighteen vets commits suicide every day, according to the Center for New American Security, one every hour and 20 minutes. “That’s violence!” Rotunda says.

But whatever specific evidence about his breakdown, or about breakdowns in general, is unearthed and displayed at Bales’s trial, it might not matter. In general, Rotunda says, “the military is not always willing to accept that PTSD was the reason someone acted.” The defense will have to demonstrate that PTSD made Bales’s brain so defective that he couldn’t understand the wrongness of what he was doing. And while, legally, “lack of mental responsibility,” which PTSD (as well as other mental diseases or defects) could precipitate, is an allowable defense in military court, “the politics are another question.” President Obama publicly ordered prosecutors in Bales’s case to be aggressive. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the death penalty was a possibility — before Bales had even been charged.

“There’s a concern that a military jury will see President Obama’s and Secretary Panetta’s comments as a call to action,” Rotunda says. “And that’s a problem.” Especially in a court that’s already more reluctant to accept a trauma defense. “Civilian courts are on the whole much more willing to go that route.” Hundreds of veterans after the Vietnam War and through the ’80s who committed crimes — some of them as serious as taking hostages or opening fire on a police station — were acquitted or received lesser sentences from civilian juries. Same for Iraq vet Jessie Bratcher, who was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in his 2009 murder trial.

Not that it always shakes out like that in the civilian world. Take the case of Joseph Patrick Lamoureux, who’s currently serving 10 years in prison for injuring a cop on a wild shooting spree in 2008. His wife, who is admittedly biased, said he was screaming and having nightmare flashbacks of a suicide-bomber attack that day. Reports from the sheriff’s office, which are probably less biased, state that he was being prescribed at least 14 medications in his PTSD treatment. Consider also how he said at his trial, as Bales is saying now, that he remembered little of the incident. And like Bales’s wife and acquaintances, who claim to be just dumbstruck over his alleged crimes, Lamoureux himself sounds a little bewildered in a statement at his trial: “I am extremely remorseful for causing the horrible incident that morning, and I thank God for protecting deputy Murphy [who survived his wounds] and the other officers involved. My combat experiences in Iraq impact me deeply. You do not understand unless you have lived it.”

Did his PTSD defense “lack credibility,” as the judge in his case said? Is there a more credible reason for a man with no criminal record, whose sergeant said at his hearing that he was a good, order-following soldier, firing 61 rounds from two handguns while hiding behind some rocks in a trailer park for no apparent purpose? Lamoureux could be playing me for the sympathy-prone sucker that I am. The similarities in the rare instances when soldiers go blank and then go violently crazy could be a conspiracy to cover up the intentional actions of a bunch of veterans who got together and formed some kind of secret, insidious Murder Club. Or it could be that an extreme combat trauma disorder is not an excuse, but an explanation, one that in some cases does relieve the actors of culpability.

Whether that’s true for Bales will depend on the facts of the investigation. “The defense council is potentially going to put the military on trial here,” Rotunda says. “And I think they should. What role did the military play? Did they know that this soldier had problems? He’d been twice injured, including TBI. Did they offer treatment, are they properly identifying disorders” — at a base that’s under investigation for undertreating soldiers — “could this have been stopped earlier?” Should they have sent a soldier back to war after he suffered a traumatic brain injury? Should anyone send a human to war for years and years and years on four deployments, ever?

When the trial is over, maybe it will turn out that Bales really is just a bloodthirsty monster. More likely, he’s not. But if the outcomes of trials about, say, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib are any indication, it won’t matter either way. “The military doesn’t want to take any responsibility, and neither does the leadership,” Meshad says. “They always sacrifice the soldier for the whole. That’s just the way the military is.”

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (L) is seen during a training exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, in this August 23, 2011 DVIDS handout photo. REUTERS/Department of Defense/Spc. Ryan Hallock/Handout


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Posted by American Veteran News 03.24.12 » One Old Vet | Report as abusive

Bravo Ms. McClelland, a well rounded thoughtful piece. That the Military might learn something enduring from this is probably wishful thinking, but dragging all the pertinent facts out into the light of day might at least give them a moment’s pause.

Thanks for the good read and the brain food!

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

What if it isn’t a soldier? What if it’s a normal guy who suffers traumatic brain injury because his car turns over, then two years later he kills people? Is he culpable? What is culpability? If he is not culpable, who is? How can we find out whether someone has or had traumatic brain injury?
Lots of questions here that go well beyond Mr Bales. (I do not support the death penalty for anyone, by the way.)
But what is reasonable doubt?
What about enemy combatants?
Can they suffer from TBI?
What about killers in inner cities who were shaken as kids or youths and “possibly” suffered TBI?
How is TBI Tested?
Does your country have the resources to deal with all those cases of TBI? If I thought you did I wouldn’t be asking these questions. I think the USA is about to set a dangerous precendent.

Posted by Danaghie | Report as abusive

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Posted by Something to Think About « Grumpa Joe's Place | Report as abusive

War is Hell. But an unnecessary and well beyond long war is deeper than Hell. Bring back the Draft and the war will end. I wore an Army uniform and well-remember “Nam”.

Posted by geesam47 | Report as abusive

Ms. McClelland, did you ever think that maybe this person was under the assumption that the life of an Afghan was just not the same as the life of an American?
This is not the first incident. Last year a small group of soldiers killed a boy in cold blood to cover up an accident, then they took his fingers as souveniers. Are they also suffering PTSD???

There are many instances of soldiers killing inncoent people. Lets call it what it is, TERRORISM. Just because our soldiers are not Muslims, does not mean they are not using terrorism. Most US soldiers are disciplined, well behaved, and professional. But some are really not, just terrorists in a soldiers uniform. And it only takes a few to create a bad name for everyone.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

There are some people so full of hate that they would go out and kill for the pure pleasure of it. But not most properly trained and screened soldiers.

In a fairly short war (for the US) like WW2 things could get so bad for so long that it could cause huge changes in behavior for some soldiers. And with the US having been at war for 10 years now non-stop with soldiers having one long, nasty, dangerous deployment after another, we know some will snap. Many desperately need treatment and to keep away from war zones. Many commit suicide, but once in a while one turns the confusion, the rage, the mental illness outward and kills anyone perceived as an enemy. This happens especially in a war like these wars and like NAM where you can’t tell if even a child might be the enemy. Sooner or later, if you are there long enough, you break. And the military doesn’t want to know this, because it would have to remove too many soldiers from combat. It would rather have the suicides and even incidents like this once in a while because the loss in manpower isn’t as bad.

Posted by pbug | Report as abusive

I don’t believe that there are many people who go out and kill for the sheer pleasure of it, nor that the psyche of a soldier is any different from that of another person. If we start to release people from culpability on (unclear) grounds of TBI or stress, we might as well turn the prisons into hospitals. I have put my point of view together in the following article:
http://danaghie.wordpress.com/2012/03/24  /when-is-a-killer-cuplable-robert-bales -and-mohammed-merah/
There you will find a list of other articles on this theme. Depending on how your read them, you might draw other conclusions. Mine is that a bad precendent would be set by creating a law for Soldiers that does not hold for civilians, and the case of Bales is one such example.

Posted by Danaghie | Report as abusive

I think the author is not old enough to remember Oliver North. Don’t be so quick to judge. You may find that the actors will change a few times in this story.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I strongly support our troops and our military. The United States has done great things in this world for the benefit of not only ourselves but for the benefit of the entire world via our military. However, this murderous rampage was neither directly nor indirectly a result of orders from the chain of command. Soldiers must adhere to the chain of command. The soldier is responsible for his actions. Not to be cold hearted, but there are many many casualties of war. This soldier’s path to mental rage or instability may turn out to be but one of them. And as for war. War harms everyone. Let’s abolish it, but let’s not blame the military machine we have set up in our defense.

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

In a democratic country the actors should change a few times, but at the end of the day it should come down to; did this man murder 17 people? Did he do it in the call of duty? Is there any reasonable doubt that the man is sane enough to be aware of the human consequences and ethical repercussions?
Then you can ask yourself the question. If I let him go, who else do I have to let go?

Posted by Danaghie | Report as abusive

[…] Who’s to blame when an injured soldier kills civilians? – Mac McClelland […]

Posted by Counterparties | Felix Salmon | Report as abusive

Tell me again, why are we there?

Posted by dr.bob | Report as abusive

Bob Kerrey has admitted to the New York Times that in 1969 he lead a squad that killed 14 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, and that some of them were intentionally killed at close range. One of his fellow operators said that Kerrey personally participated in the knife murder of an unarmed elderly Vietnamese man. See http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/25/magazi ne/25KERREY.html?pagewanted=all

Instead of being charged with a crime he was elected Governor of Nebraska, served two terms as the State’s Senator and ran for President of the United States He is now running in the Democratic primary for the Nebraska Senate seat left open by the resignation of Ben Nelson.

There is no statute of limitations on murder. The military would have jurisdiction over the crimes and they should put Bob Kerrey on trial for war crimes just as they put Lt. William Calley on trial for his part in the My Lai massacre. The people of Nebraska should not elect a war criminal to the United States Senate.

Posted by ruleofwolves | Report as abusive

This is terrible. Tremendously terrible. How many similar incidents have been documented this week? This month? This year? Since 9-11? Atrocities can not be tolerated!!! Sargeant Bales will have to answer for his horrific actions. In my opinion, in spite of the Marxist administration, the United States of America still has the capacity to defend the defenseless.

Posted by mdblitz | Report as abusive

During my tour of duty as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, I had to wrestle a wounded grunt, who was cracking up, on the ward. But only with three or four other medics helping me was I able to get him down on his bed as I fastened the leather restrains around his wrists. ankles and stomach. And to be completely honest, this wounded grunt was also going through the DTs (delirium tremens). His wounds made him temporarily bed-ridden so he couldn’t get to the storage room where his field backpack had a stash of bottles of booze. I think in my entire year, there were maybe a handful of wounded grunts who reacted like this guy afterwards to the stress of combat. They also had a drinking problem when they cracked up on the ward. But thankfully I was off-duty when they lost it. One was enough for me. It was so sad to see this young man reduced to a thing. And I told myself, as I would many times through that year, There be for the grace of God go I.
So even now after more than four decades, it’s really hard for me to wrap my head and heart around what war does to a soldier.
Maybe this will be a wake-up call for the brass. They are supposed to give leadership to the enlisted soldiers in their units. They were the doctors at the Madigan Meidcal Center at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington that downgraded Sgt. Bales and around 285 other combat veterans for another deployment in a war zone.
It seems the volunteer army may have reached a breaking point in the ten years they have been fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s this recent massacre, the viral video of grunts urinating on corpses, the grunts convicted of hunting down Afghans like so much game on a hunting preservation, the burning of the Qurans, etc. So there have been many clear signs something terrible wrong has happened with the war.
This is the price all of us are paying for trying to maintain a military empire with an all volunteer armed forces. And that’s what is really bizarre for me: living in a country of civilians who have no problem sending other citizens to fight these wars. And these soldier were sent to war by politicians. baby boomers like myself, who avoided service in Vietnam. That doesn’t mean I am for a renewal of the another draft. Citizens will evade it just as they did during my war or get deferments because they had other priorities. But there is a need for a comprehensive Congressional investigation into the all volunteer army and armed forces.

Posted by rewiredhogdog | Report as abusive

Every reader must ask themselves whether Sgt Bales would have been treated differently, if he had gone berserk back home and killed 17 US citizens instead.

If the answer is “No,” and there is reason to believe that he has indeed been affected by PTSD, the humane thing to do would be to not take his life, but to treat his PTSD while in custody, till he is fit to lead a normal life. Simultaneously, the families of the 17 victims should be taken care of, as they would have suffered irreparable loss.

Posted by Ugottabesick | Report as abusive

In “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Adam Hochschild suggests that the suicidal and genocidal European wars of the 20th century would not have been so ferocious, and might not have occurred at all, had the nations of Europe not previously accustomed generations of their soldiers to the dehumanizing violence that became commonplace in those nations’ African colonies. (According to Hochschild, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” on which Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” was partly based, was probably less fictitious than previously supposed.) All in all, I think it is well worth considering the extent to which PTSDs and TBIs can haunt the world for centuries.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

I’m wondering if the acquittal of some American soldiers in Iraq recently — who were charged with murdering a number of innocent Iraqi civilians — could have played into Bales’ decision to kill these people. Perhaps he heard about their being let off and decided that he, too could get away with even a heinous act such as killing a bunch of kids.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

why do not you write an article about Himmel or Hitler? Maybe all those atrocities they did was not their fault… then osama bin laden was not terorist there should be a reason why he killed 1000s of people without any remorse… vowww… maybe you should marry him… he can give you clues about how to kill children in their sleep…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

This is just damage control. Had it been the other way around with a Afghan shooter and seventeen US victims the discussion would be different to say the least.
MacClelland do Afghans have human rights or even human value?

Posted by SvenBolin | Report as abusive

I admire your liberalism. I share it.

But it count for nothing unless equally applied to the young Taliban dieing every day. And the Afghan soldiers who also go on shooting sprees.

Where are you and Floyd Meshad on them?

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

I would find it high unlikely that a person could serve in repeated combat tours without suffering mental ill-affects. I also understand that many times, the people whose job it is identify and treat PTSD have never actually seen combat, and therefore only have a textbook understanding of the problem (as explained to me by a Marine who would have been a lifer but for IED shrapnel almost tearing his arm off).

Is there a widespread and systemic problem in the identification and treatment of PTSD and combat related trauma? Definitely, and I believe it is the responsibility of those in command to create a viable solution to the problem, no matter the cost. Their failure thus far to do so, in my mind, places part of the culpability on their shoulders.

Does this absolve Sgt. Bales of his responsibility to NOT kill non-combatants? Absolutely not. Insanity does not change the fact of murder, nor does it change the likelihood of future violent acts.

Anything worth talking about doesn’t have an open-and-shut answer, and neither does this. The military is responsible, Bales is responsible.

Posted by smanchwhich | Report as abusive

Quite. Take a violent serial killer who slaughters women and children (plus a few men) and justify it because he may have had a stress disorder …
Well done! Did you also check to see whether he had had a bad dinner before going on the rampage? Maybe that set him off …
It takes thought and organization to pick up a weapon, walk into town and systematically kill people. He did not go nuts, he simply allowed his inner demons to run free. This is an evil man.

Posted by I-wonder | Report as abusive

What if the tables were turned? What if an Afghan soldier/civilian who’s lived through war and chaos all his/her life carries out such attack on US soil? I doubt I would see this “human rights” article.

Posted by skparekh | Report as abusive

I can tell you exactly how this happens. Our sons and daughters bravley serve again and again and again, in a war this country did not want.

While serving and watching fellow soldiers and children and other innocents die, and then add a rocket hitting their barracks while asleep. Add a minor brain injury from such a rocket attack, add that the soldier then cannot sleep. Which we all know that sleep deprivation itself can be used as a form of torture. So now they are sleep deprived and probably in pain. Often the medics or doctors refuse them treatment for any of it. Then lets add a lung injury due to something the military won’t admit to, but several soldiers have become I’ll and cannot breath. Two don’t get better at all and are deemed to be in respiratory distress and near resp failure. So they are medivaced out treated and returned to battle barely able to great. The are then a detriment to themselves and their fellow soldiers. Because if they end up in a bad situation and can’t breath they are going down and so are the ones trying to save them. But the’militarh refuses you treatment. You come back home, you survived this time. In between war zones you become I’ll a few times and are refused a diagnostic work up and finally go to a civilian hosp and pay for your treatment. You go back three more times to a combat zone. You save others you have small I juries. The. You are called upon to help find something to send back home of your buddies killed by IEd. IED s do horrible things to the human body, and they were your buddies. Sleep of any kind eludes you. You are made fun of or called names by your upper echelon because you realize you need help, they refuse you saying you must be faking your problems…..then you snap, you hurt others or like my son, think you should drive your. Are into a semi or telephone pole because you are almost done with your tour and u enrolled in college cause you were promised an education too. But….they refuse to pay for it after a semester for some small reason. So again and again you beg for help get none or some meds that don’t really help you still don’t sleep, but thank God your Mom is a nurse cause daily she talks you out of hurting yourself….but she’s not sure how to keep him from it. I know all this and more because I am speaking of myself and of my son….

Posted by soldiersmom4902 | Report as abusive