In this military court, as counsel for the defense, I stand respectfully among fellow veterans of armed combat who understand, far better than any uninvolved civilian ever could, that my client, Sergeant Robert Bales, is not truly guilty of mass murdering civilians in Afghanistan. He cannot be, for Sergeant Bales is also a victim. He is a victim of war. He’s a victim of barbarism without cease. He has been wounded and battered. He’s been degraded and dehumanized. And, as such, he is forever ruined even if he does sit breathing in this courtroom today.
You are doubtless aware of the tragic progression that ultimately destroyed the soul of Robert Bales. He was a stockbroker who strove to better the financial and emotional lives of his clients. Then, after 9/11, that merciless strike at our American soul, an attack which killed some three thousand innocents, he, unlike millions who merely beat their chests, volunteered to defend his country. He volunteered to fight our enemies. He bravely stood between us and them.
Sergeant Bales first fought for a year in Iraq. As an expert sniper he silently eliminated adversaries before they could strike. He was wounded but did not surrender. He recovered and returned for another year of combat. In 2007 southern Iraq he and comrades killed two hundred fifty enemies while suffering not a single casualty. Afterward, Sergeant Bales spoke to journalists about his great pride in being one of the “good guys,” the Americans who “differentiated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then” warmly helped “the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill” them.
In time, while serving back in the United States, Sergeant Bales married and had two children and purchased a family home outside Seattle. Then he had to fight another year in Iraq. He suffered more wounds, physical and psychological. Only two years ago, riding in a vehicle that rolled over, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. I must tell my fellow warriors in this courtroom: Sergeant Robert Bales should not have been sent into battle again. He urgently desired to avoid further conflict and merely wanted what he had earned: a modest promotion to Sergeant E-7. That was denied, despite his long and many sacrifices for his country.
Instead, Sergeant Robert Bales was ordered to once again leave his wife and children and go to war, this time in Afghanistan. On his fourth tour Sergeant Bales, as ever, frequently took enemy fire, ministered to wounded comrades, and too often watched them die. He and his comrades seldom knew who the enemy was: the Taliban in the hills or “allies” in a village who pretended to be peaceful. The very March day the sergeant snapped, he saw a fellow soldier step on a land mine and lose his leg.
That night, about three a.m., as the sergeant has admitted, he crept off base and into a neighboring village and fired multiple rounds into people as they slept. Many were women and children. Then he set a number of bodies on fire. To this court I say: that wasn’t Sergeant Robert Bales acting. How could he murder children? He is a father. No, Sergeant Bales was not the culprit. War itself is. War killed those people. What else do you expect in a war?
Confidential Legal Memo: What can we expect in the mass murder trial of Sergeant Robert Bales? As defense counsel I looked back at the 1970-71 trial of Lieutenant William Calley, accused of ordering the execution of one hundred four Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. He was convicted of murdering twenty-two and sentenced to life in prison. Patriots protested Calley was being mistreated. They accepted his explanation that he’d been ordered to destroy all enemies including unarmed men, women, and children. President Richard Nixon, and eighty percent of Americans polled, agreed. Nixon ordered Calley be placed under house arrest at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he served three and a half years before being released. Robert Bales cannot claim he was following orders, so will probably serve a few more years than Calley.