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Diving for Pearls

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A man murders 16 innocent people. Yet, I can’t help but feel sorry for him.

The “him” in this case is Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a husband and father of two. The 38-year-old signed up to serve in the military right after the 9/11 attacks and was trained as an Army sniper. After three tours of duty in Iraq, where he was injured twice, he was sent off to Afghanistan.

According to his attorney, John Henry Browne, Sgt. Bales lost part of his foot in one of those incidents, apparently to an IED. Another time, Bales was wounded when the Humvee he was riding in flipped over. He sustained a head injury, and likely a traumatic brain injury, which in some cases leads to cognitive problems, personality changes and a loss of impulse control.

It has also been widely speculated that Bales may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If PTSD, a brain injury and the stress of four tours of duty in war zones wasn’t enough to manage, the Bales Family was also upside-down on the Pierce County, Washington, home they purchased in 2005, before the burst of the housing bubble.

An unnamed “senior government official” was quoted by the New York Times, saying, “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped.”

But Bales’s attorney told reporters that the sergeant’s marriage was sound and that he had not been drinking. He also pointed out that Bales’s had won many medals and that his previous military record is good. However, Mr. Browne did note that on the day before Bales’s shooting rampage, Bales had witnessed a fellow soldier lose his leg to a hidden mine.

Still, finding a reason or two doesn’t necessarily excuse. Whatever Bales’s personal trials and tribulations were, there is no way, nor any desire on my part, to justify these killings. They are indisputably unjustifiable. Horrific. Senseless.

What happened? Last Sunday, Bales reportedly left his base in the Kandahar province of southern Afghanistan, entered three separate homes and opened fire, killing 16 people, including three women and nine children. Bales is also accused of attempting to burn the bodies of his victims, before making the long walk back to base.

Justice demands that Sergeant Bales be held to account for these crimes.

And, yet, I surmise that had the United States of America neither fought a long war in Iraq on now universally discredited grounds nor occupied Afghanistan for more than a decade after the overthrow of the Taliban and the dispersal of Al-Qaeda in the foolish and vain hopes of building a nation in our image, these 16 Afghan victims might be alive and Bales likely be pushing his two kids on their swing-set, rather than sitting, caged, in solitary confinement in Ft. Leavenworth.

War is hell. There’s no way around that tragic fact. Perhaps we must realize that a corollary is that sending people to hell repeatedly, and for long stretches of duty, makes some behave hellishly.

Granted, if our freedom is threatened, we must defend ourselves . . . and that means war. And war means that many good men and woman must kill and some will surely die. Under such circumstances, war is preferable to death and bondage, and Americans have always been willing in whopping numbers to make the sacrifices required.

We’re just tired of fighting wars when our freedom is not threatened. As brutal a dictator as Saddam Hussein was in Iraq, he did not imperil our lives or our freedom. And, though Americans overwhelmingly favored going to war in Afghanistan, the country is now — and quite reasonably — two-to-one in favor of bringing our troops home.

As retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey asked recently in response to whether we should stay until the announced 2014 pull-out, “Why take another 3,000 or 4,000 killed and wounded and spend another 240 billion dollars?”

The purpose of the United States government is not to “make the world safe for democracy,” which our politicians interpret as excuse to send our men and women into hell year after year, conflict after conflict, tour after tour of duty. The point is to secure the peace and our freedom here at home, so that we can each pursue our own happiness in a million different ways.

Or as Elvis Costello musically put it in the song, “Shipbuilding”:

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls?

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