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My Take: It takes a nation to make a massacre
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.
March 19th, 2012
10:31 AM ET

My Take: It takes a nation to make a massacre

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

We now know the name of the man accused of leaving his combat unit in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province on March 11, walking into two Afghan villages and murdering 16 innocent people, including 9 children.

The narratives we are supposed to follow here are clear, and each absolves the rest of us of any sin. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was mentally unstable and went off the deep end. Or perhaps he was a cold-blooded killer all along. Either way, he deserves to be separated from the rest of us by life in prison, or worse.

But why is this 38-year-old husband and father of two sitting today in solitary confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas?

I do not know. I suspect, however, that the answer is more complicated than the simple stories we tell ourselves in these circumstances.

It could be that he drank himself into delusion. It could be that he has a genetic predisposition to depression, or that his financial troubles or marital difficulties made him do it. But like I say I doubt it.

I doubt that when he joined the military at 27, just weeks after 9/11, he was the sort of man who might have marched down the streets in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio, and shot and stabbed 16 innocents. I don’t think this accused killer was made in his mother's womb or in his nation's schools. I think he was made on the battlefield, which is to say he was made by us.

According to a Pentagon official, Bales “just snapped” as a result of “a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues.”

But Bales’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, rejects that narrative, pointing instead to the fact that one day before the killings Bales had witnessed a fellow soldier lose a leg in a mine explosion.

Bales was reportedly deployed to Iraq on three separate occasions. So he saw the hell that is war long before he arrived in Afghanistan. A Humvee he was in flipped over in 2010, leaving him with what his lawyer described as a traumatic brain injury. Bales also reportedly lost part of his foot from an explosive device.

Who put him in these circumstances? Who deployed him four times? We did. It takes a country to make a man do these things, and we were his country. We U.S. citizens voted for the presidents who sent him into combat and for the Congress that appropriated the money for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a boy, I watched the television in horror as our nation learned the details of the My Lai Massacre that left hundreds of unarmed civilians dead in South Vietnam at the hands of U.S. Army soldiers. I was glad to see Second Lieutenant William Calley sent to jail for killing 22 villagers, and shocked that more U.S. soldiers were not punished for their crimes.

But there is no justice if the only people accused of murder in these massacres are the people we send off to war.

In a 1985 Newsweek commentary on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, war correspondent Gloria Emerson fantasized about chaining to that memorial all the politicians responsible for that war and making them read out loud the names of all the serviceman remembered on it. “Then the war would end for me,” she wrote. “Wouldn’t that be something? Justice at last.”

But it isn’t just our presidents and secretaries of defense who are responsible for these wars. In a republic, we are all responsible for the good that comes from war and for the evils it produces. If we are sentient, we know that war produces unintended consequences. We know it kills civilians as well as soldiers, innocent children as well as responsible adults. And we know that in many cases it contorts the personalities of our loved ones beyond recognition.

So here is my fantasy about the fate of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. If he is convicted of war crimes and sent to jail, each of the rest of us should spend a day sitting in front of our local jail. There we should confess to our respective gods "our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone" (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it). Then we should write a letter to the wife and children of Sgt. Bales asking for their forgiveness too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Afghanistan • Crime • Death • Iraq • Iraq • Middle East • Military • My Take • Sin • Uncategorized

soundoff (613 Responses)
  1. Kirsty

    Thanks for sharing. Your post is a usfuel contribution.

    March 31, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  2. Livelystone

    Evil does not have respect for persons and this particular individual has a history of evil conduct, at least according to charges being brought that he swindled people of their life savings and was a con man before joining the military.

    If the allegations are true than the simple explanation and reason is, the same person that has yielded to evil before still has evil for his master.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:15 am |
    • Muneef

      So you mean he as well robbed the savings of the people he killed?

      March 22, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Muneef

      The enemy in Iraq was the Oil Deposits...
      But for Afghanistan the enemy was if not only the Drugs then it must be the following; 

      Afghans say US team found huge potential mineral wealth
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10311752

      Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,”
      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?pagewanted=all

      Understand most deposits were shipped out abroad after the invasion...!? 
      So the guy was a small con of a bigger cons...

      March 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  3. Soukie

    I agree with what Prothero is saying, that it takes a nation to do all these things. I feel that as a country we tend to always put the blame on one person or on a party of people even though we are all responsible. For example while reading some comments I saw that many of you attacked President Bush or President Obama, but they are not truly responsible for this mans actions. The people choose the president and so we did, we cannot really blame them for what they do, didn't do or will do because without the majority of our help they would have never been in power. We are all guilty of looking for a scapegoat and as seen throughout history (the Germans, the Protestants, etc.) that can become a very dangerous thing.

    March 22, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • RightTGurnClyde

      massacres have been going on since man left the trees. The Romans destroyed Israel in 70 AD (Roman massacres are too numerous to mention). Mongol horsemen, Tatars, Huns, Khanites .. Agincourt, El Cid, the Moors, The James River 1622, the Iroquois, Tippecanoe, Chalmet, Bataan, the Yangtze (Panay Affair), Katyn Forest, Meligalas, St.Mere Egles, Korea ... 9/11, the US Marine barracks, the Munich Olymics, Entebbe, the Hootues and the Tutu's and the Tootsies .. the Mau Mau, FARC, Castro, Khomenie ... massacres. What is worse man has WMD's - they are all over the place .. every major country has nuclear, biological and chemical means to destroy billions. BILLIONS. It is not THIS country or THAT country or this particular massacre or that one .. it is a human trait. BLAME is stupid.

      March 22, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  4. RightTGurnClyde

    Prothero is very selective about which massacres shock him. He mentions Mai Lai but overlooks 6,000 killed in the WTC on 9/11. He overlooked Munich and the Marine Barracks in Lebanon. He Might goo back father (then) and recall the Lattimer Massacre and the Herrin Massacre and the Harlan war (massacre) and Matawan .. and he could dig up Wounded Knee .. that's on home turf .. and Custer too. Attica prison in New York.. pretty nasty. And for absolute Mayhem there is the second Watts riot (in the 90's) (Rodney King) .. actually the Sergeant in Afghan pales by comparison to some of that carnage. Now if you want to go beyond Americans and look at massacres in general - the Tutu's and the Tooteis murdered hundreds in central Africa for no apparent reason .. the Moslem Spring murdered hundreds, Tienanmen Square, FARC, the Egyptian Coptic Church, mass graces in Croatia and Serbia, Moslem beheadings, Philliping Is, massacres (since Corazon)... Cuba and Iran purges, Chile .. there is no dearth of massacres .. and the two Prothero selected are not even closer to the worst. .. don't forget Columbine and the Texas U. Clock Tower.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • cold hard fact

      In defence fo prothero... he can only do one subject a a time..perhaps you should get off that high horse and od your own .. sy seem to have a lot of time..don't get me wrong.. this is not just for you but everyoen who wants to complain about the writer ... I suggest that from now on you from now on ignore his offerings here..I happen ot agree with him..we all bear some responsibility for the wars we invest ourselves in ...

      March 22, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Oh no. Prothero is a Phd. and he is well read enough to KNOW there have been many massacres. The most poorly informed soul must know at least about 9/11 and Fort Hood - they are almost current events. He selected this massacre and uses THIS is damn the U.S. as a nation. Oh this nation has plenty of culpability (not overlook any of that), and plenty of culpability in a variety of origins (black man, red man, white man and wars 1 through n).. And what that makes this NATION is like all the nations and all men. All men throughout history. It is not THIS massacre that crosses boundaries and make a nation culpable. It is not nations that are culpable; it is man. But then as atheists you have no culpable morality for man .. no original sin, no sin at all. You have no need for redemption because you do not posit moral culpability (except for the ONE man out 7 billion). So you condemn the nation. We have original sin (we are culpable) and we have latent inclination that we can witness over and over and over again. There is no particular nation, no particular decade, no particular location on earth. It is all of us. All of us. Not the nation. Mankind. We have created WMD and everyone has them .. we do not create things we do not intend to use. Many of our kind express intention to use them. SOME of our kind are prepared to use them.

      March 22, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  5. RightTGurnClyde

    All the eastern liberal,s want an immediate lynching of the Sgt. who (in a war zone) shot the Afghans .. but nobody wants an immediately lynching of the Moslem officer who went bersek and killed as manuy at Ft. Hood .. oh no .. it's different if it is a Moslem nut even if he IS an Army officer.. than if it is an Army enlisted. And notice how unlike the liberal mood after aAbu Graibe none of the liberals want to know why Obama and the Secretary of Defense did not have procedures to prevent something like that. Different now - Obama is one of them. Obama is also a muslim. So that is automatically hands off - taboo.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  6. Pete

    Remember too,after 9/11,we sent these men and women, to war, some there to die under false pretences.So if you want,go raise hell with that elustreous republican hypocrite you idiots voted for not once,but twice,Mr Bush.He and his repub pals made a great amount of money with your family members lives.Think about that as the Russians are saying to us,been there,done that and came home much like us with nothing ,NADA,ZILCH.....

    March 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • RightTGurnClyde

      Oh that's riich ..it's Bush's fault!! Haha - poor old Obama has not power to END the war (llike h promised)? The Democratic congress since4 2006 has no power to end the war like they promised??? They cannot end the Bush war?? So old Bush is still in charge in there? .. Here I thought Obama and Pelosi and Reid were in charge the way they crammed Obamacase down everyone's throat, and spent trillions they cannot account for .. and fired anybody who tired... and sued Arizona for enforcing the border laws .. sure seemed like Obama has his own mind (to most of us)... and then giving guns to bandits to destabilize Mexico (was hat Bush too?).. What about Gitmo? Is hat Bush's fault too (Obama said he'd close it but now he will not) ... well sure is a mystery how Bush is still in power... but .. you must know.

      March 22, 2012 at 3:59 am |
  7. Pete

    People aren't tested under these actual conditions,no combat simulation is like the actual thing.Plus you have a broken soldier who has a TBI that has not been correctly diagnosed,because if it was he'd be stateside getting proper medical care.TBI patients can change personalities 180% from what they once were,a proven medical fact.Plus TBIs are in the infantcy of medical research,not much medical or psychological is known.I have experience in this field,my son is a TBI survivor.It can cripple the best of people and others go on like nothing ever happened.TBIs are diagnosed by a CT Scan,not likely in a field hospital in Afghanistan,its scan or picture can only be read by a specialist trained in that field.It is usually a bruising or bleeding on the brain creating pressure on the brain itself within the cranium.It sometimes causes headaches,or cause a patient, in my sons case to be in a coma.He'll never be the same,so don't be so fast to judge this soldier Mr.Bale,who was diagnosed with a TBI.The military is ultimately responsible for his health and WELL BEING,they trained him to kill,so now its up to the military to help this poor soul,weather he killed innocent people or not.They started this mess,now fix it properly,the American way...

    March 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Proven .

    March 21, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Jesus

      – You've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested Friday morning...

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!! .. .. .. ... .. .

      March 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  9. Reality

    40,000+ Afghani civilians have been killed by the Taliban. Why are there no Afghani protests?
    ==========================================================================

    March 21, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Muneef

      Long time no see,I was becoming worried and wondering if still or departed... Any way welcome back dear :)

      March 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Muneef

      Any way poor afghans were being killed by two parties the Taliban and Alqaida but now they are being killed by three parties the National Talibans and the Multinationals ( Alqaida and Foreign troops)... ;)

      March 21, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Reality

      Putting a quick end to all of the hostilities:

      –from the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi)

      The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
      ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

      Are you ready?

      Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

      The First Five of the 77 Branches:

      "1. Belief in Allah"

      aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

      "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

      Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

      "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

      A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

      "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

      Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

      Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

      Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

      "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
      alone."
      Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

      Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

      Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

      Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..

      March 22, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  10. Mike from CT

    Even if you are correct, and I think you rarely are. Praise God for the men and women under the same conditions that do not "just snap" but have committed their lives and lively-hood for our protection. Combat stress is very real and very hard to deal with but Praise God for the ones that are given the fortitude to handle the job.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things ,

    March 21, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • mandarax

      Sadly, I bet every single one of those civilian victims was praying as hard as they could for their family to be spared. Disproved. Powerless. Ineffective.

      March 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Jesus

      - You've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested Friday morning...

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!! .. .. .. ... .. .

      March 21, 2012 at 10:54 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.