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by Jim Longworth

Last week a 38-year-old soldier reportedly left his barracks in the middle of the night, walked about a mile to a nearby village and opened fire, killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children. Afterward the soldier set many of the bodies on fire. Days later, details of the incident began to emerge, along with speculation about the man’s motivation for allegedly committing the heinous crimes.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales might have been drinking. He might have had marital problems.

He might have been in shock from seeing his friend’s leg blown off the day before. He might have had financial troubles. He might have been depressed because he felt mislead into a fourth tour of duty. He might have been angry about having been passed over for promotion. Or his murderous actions might have been the result of a delayed reaction from his previous concussion. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about Bales or his motives, except to the extent that by studying them we might discover the need to enact certain reforms in the armed forces. What I care about are the victims and their surviving family members.

Since Bales’ alleged crimes occurred “in country,” a military tribunal will determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. If so, don’t hold your breath that he will be adequately punished. CNN recalled a recent case in which the commander of an Army kill team murdered Afghan civilians and took their body parts as souvenirs. He will likely be eligible for parole in 10 years.

This is not a new phenomenon. In 2010 alone, four other soldiers from Bales’ base were convicted for killing Afghan civilians, yet the carnage continues. It’s no wonder that Afghani President Hamid Karzai said, “This has been going on too long… we’re at the end of the rope.” Translation? “Get the hell out of our country, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” It’s a fair and logical demand. Get rid of the American occupiers and you get rid of Americans who injure and kill civilians.

Truth is, we should have never sent troops to Afghanistan, or to Iraq for that matter. America cannot afford the human and financial costs of policing the world, especially since nothing we do ever brings closure to civil or religious conflict in foreign nations. But even if President Obama withdrew all of our troops from the Middle East tomorrow, we still face two troubling problems. Long term: How do we reform the military so that there is less chance of psychotic behavior by rogue soldiers? And, short term: What do we do about Sgt. Bales?

First of all, the Pentagon must worry less about the quantity of men they recruit, and more about the quality. There must be comprehensive, ongoing mental evaluations conducted. And, there must be swifter punishment and discharge of soldiers who break laws at home or abroad. In 2002, Sgt. Bales assaulted a woman and was ordered to do 20 hours of anger management. And in 2009, he was charged with a hit and run, but escaped by paying a fine and claiming he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. If the military had stricter standards, Bales would have been tossed from the Army long ago, and there would be 16 fewer civilian casualties in Afghanistan. There also needs to be a full-scale investigation of Joint Base Lewis McChord where 12 suicides occurred in one year, and two soldiers were shot to death by police after suffering public mental breakdowns. If post-traumatic stress disorder

is to blame for all of these incidents, then that is reason enough to limit soldiers to one tour of duty. For now, a military trial of Sgt Bales will have to proceed, but we should also let civilian prosecutors from America and Afghanistan participate in the process. Afterwards, Bales should be shipped back to Afghanistan to serve whatever sentence is handed down. America

must send a message to friend and foe alike that we will not tolerate crimes against civilians, and cooperation in a joint prosecutorial effort would be a step in the right direction.

It is sadly ironic that exactly 44 years ago, a similar but larger-scale military atrocity occurred, as Lt. William Calley and his men stormed into a village and murdered 500 innocent Vietnamese civilians, then mutilated their bodies. Of the 26 soldiers who participated, only Calley was convicted. His punishment for 500 murders was a mere three years house arrest. The My Lai Massacre of March 16, 1968 apparently taught us nothing about how to prevent and deal with war crimes, so we as a society were destined to repeat our mistakes.

Earlier this month, we did just that.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)

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