Depictions of Peace From Kandahar, Afghanistan / Dessins montrant des scènes de paix de Kandahar, Afghanistan.

(Schoolchild’s Depictions of Peace From Kandahar, Afghanistan via Flickr.com)

In March of this year an unnamed ‘Rogue soldier’ had been reported to have killed sixteen and wounded five civilians, which soon grew to six, in two villages in Kandahar Province.  Military officials front-loaded the idea that he was alone during the massacres; some witnesses have claimed that several other soldiers were involved.  Patrick Martin at wssw.org has written that nearly every fact the US military has asserted is false according to witnesses and the Karzai government. Nine of the dead were children; in one house eleven bodies were placed in a pile and burned.  Eleven of the total dead consisted of one entire family.

An Article 32 hearing is apparently the military equivalent of a grand jury; part of its purpose is to establish whether or not there’s enough evidence to proceed with a court martial.  The other purposes are to allow defense attorneys to know what evidence prosecutors have against their client/s, and discredit witnesses or evidence as far as possible at this early stage.

For the past seven months, Bales has been incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, where Bradley Manning has been so unconscionably been held for doing the right thing. Bales has been charged with sixteen counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder; he was moved  to Joint Base Lewis -McChord in WA state for the hearing. The prosecution team was headed by Lt. Col. Jay Morse, and according to CapitalBay.com, the investigating officer will make a written recommendation within a week, and then:

That recommendation goes next to the brigade command, and the ultimate decision would be made by the three-star general on the base.  There’s no clear sense of how long that could take before a decision is reached on whether to proceed to a court-martial trial.  If a court-martial takes place, it will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Washington state base south of Seattle, and witnesses will be flown in from Afghanistan.

Prosecutors have alleged that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales slipped out of his base, Camp Bellambay, early on March 11 under cover of darkness, and went on foot to two villages in Southern Afghanistan and committed atrocities hideous enough to warrant the death penalty. Blood on his clothes matched some of the murdered civilians, but it’s unclear when those samples might have been taken; perhaps from the walls? From the ctpost.com:

A U.S. agent who investigated the massacre of 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan earlier this year recounted the livid reaction from local villagers and said Wednesday that it was weeks before American forces could visit the crime scenes less than a mile from a remote base.

By that time, bodies had been buried and some blood stains had been scraped from the walls, Special Agent Matthew Hoffman of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command said.

Other stains remained, on walls and floors. Investigators also recovered shell casings consistent with the weapons Staff Sgt. Robert Bales reportedly carried and a piece of fabric similar to the blanket prosecutors say he wore as a cape during the killing spree.

John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan, Bales’ attorneys, are trying to establish that, counter to the prosecution’s claim, their client was likely suffering PTSD, head injury, and was under the influence of alcohol, steroids and sleeping pills. An Army criminal investigations command special agent testified that he’d found steroids in his blood three days after the killings. The prosecution agreed with witnesses who said that he’d been drinking while he and fellow special forces troops watched the movie Man on Fire about a former CIA agent on a revenge killing spree before he left the camp and committed ‘the massacre.’

You can read some of the claims and counter-arguments about Bales’ state of mind at fortbragg.patch.com. The standout quote repeated by one of the guards that made him lay down his many weapons when he returned to base was: “I thought I was doing the right thing,” as well as something to the effect that they’d thank him later in June when the Taliban Offensive is generally believed to begin in earnest in Kandahar.  In fact, some Afghans had apparently said that they believed that the shots and clamor of Bales’ raids were in fact night raids.

According to the surveillance videos shown at the hearing, Bales returned to the base after the initial killings at Alkozai, which was corroborated by one witness. He’d apparently jammed into the room of a fellow soldier and told him of his initial murders and his plans to go to another village to kill more civilians, which he did (at Najiban). That soldier claimed not to have belied his wild tales, and that he’d gone back to sleep. But during the hearing, one soldier testified that he and three other junior soldiers at Bales’ outpost approached an Army criminal investigator with a theory that a second sergeant was involved in the killings. They based their speculation on reports from an Afghan guard that two Americans walked into Belambay late on the night of the killings, and one American left the base about 3 a.m.  The Army discredited all of it.

Afghani witnesses testified by way of the Army’s version of Skype at a base at Kandahar, and according to Winston Ross at the Daily Beast, testimony was often difficult to follow due to reception and interpretation difficulties.  John Henry Browne had told Newsweek the week before that he’d be presenting witnesses who would say that more than one soldier was involved in the killing spree.  Only one witness testified to that indirectly:

Sadiquallah Naim was asleep in his room when his neighbors came knocking on the door of his mud-walled house in a remote village in southern Afghanistan on March 11, in the dead of night.

“The Americans are here,” they said.

Minutes later, the young teenager’s sister, his mother, and his brother were dead, gunned down along with six other adults and seven other children in a rampage that American military officials say came at the hands of an Army sergeant hopped up on steroids and alcohol. [snip]

They saw just one man, wearing a black T-shirt and camouflage pants, a headlight obscuring his face, wielding an assault rifle with a light attached to it, mowing down men, women, and children as he stalked from house to house, room to room.  Sadiquallah’s neighbors told his family that night, “They shot our family”—a woman he knew well “told us he killed our men,” the boy testified—before an American soldier burst into his room. He ran, he said, and hid behind a curtain, but was shot in the ear by one of the many bullets that were being fired in his house.

The Miami Herald highlighted the witness that the defense was unable to bring to the hearing, that of the widow of a man killed in Najiban. She told an Army Criminal Investigative Command agent in June that she saw two American soldiers enter her home, shout about the Taliban, take her husband Mohammed Dawood outside and execute him with a pistol to his head.  Officials said that her family didn’t want Masooma to testify because she is a woman, so they allowed her brother to speak for her.  He denied her story, but did admit that he had been given the $50,000 blood money the US has given all the victims’ families.

You can read more of the grisly testimony from Afghani witnesses on page two of Ross’s piece.  I’ll add this from the defense:

Bales’s military attorney objected to this venue and the videoconferencing at the hearing’s outset. He said that two of the witnesses had passports and wanted to attend the hearing in person. “Objection noted,” said the Army’s investigating officer, Col. Lee Deneke, the hearing’s version of a judge, before proceeding.

Some of the coverage has reported that Browne intends to go to Afghanistan to seek out witnesses; he was disturbed from the outset that Bales was whisked away from Kandahar so quickly, and that the military had made it so hard for him to find evidence or speak with witnesses.

Food for thought

That the military would prefer it that Bales acted alone is no small wonder, given Abu Ghraib and other potentially game-changing scandals.  They may especially want to frame him as a solitary ‘rogue’ soldier given the fact that five members of the Stryker Brigade ‘Kill Team’ were tried for the murder, mutilation and dismemberment of three unarmed Afghans in Kandahar for deeds committed in 2010.

Sentences for four of them ranged from five years to life in prison, and another seven were charged with conspiracy to cover up the crimes. Der Spiegel had obtained some of the closely guarded photos of the atrocities, eighteen of which were published by Rolling StoneDer Spiegel later produced this 21- minute documentary on the group. Both come with WARNINGS due to the extremely graphic content, as in: Enter at Your Own Risk…especially the photos. Did Americans care?  I really have no idea, but I imagine that the world cared, and especially the people around the planet the US has declared  ‘enemies’.

Some announcements of the Article 32 hearing came with the sub-headlines: ‘PTSD on Trial,’ which showed that the media-savvy Browne did some good work ahead of time, including the articles that showed that in addition to Bales’ anger and upset that a fellow soldier had sustained a serious leg injury from an IED just before his rampage, he was flipped out because the house that his wife had bought recently was in foreclosure. It was part of a ‘how could this country allow its soldiers to be treated this way?’ framing. I’d guess the defense would also bring the new stats on military suicides that are of course even higher than the numbers in last report. That Bales will be recommended for court-martial is a foregone conclusion according to Browne.

What and who will be on trial really? Forget for now how varied the coverage might be for the moment. Will it be the Army’s version of a rational soldier who decided to seek his own brand of justice or revenge on Afghani civilians and had no remorse when he was accosted by guards on his return? Was it an ethical or political decision that’s driven the prosecution? Would the Stryker Kill Team have been prosecuted without the photos having surfaced or the fear of them being published?

Will it be the family man who served for eleven years and broke under the strains of an occupation that was built on a failed strategy that included scaring the bejayzus out of the local populace with night raids, ‘accidental’ killings and disappearances of those who may have been allegedly connected to the Taliban? A soldier who was the victim of a failed medical system that gave him sleeping pills or steroids but didn’t catch his severe potential reactions to trauma from undiagnosed head injuries?

How will history record these events? Sy Hersh speaks here of the 4000 photos the Stryker Kill Team took of their evil deeds against other human beings, and concludes that they had lost their moral bearings so completely that killing others had become ordinary, whether out of revenge or in a firefight. He cautions with one sentence that we might also want to see them as victims of the war machine. I’d add that the military teaches soldiers that ‘our enemies’ are subhuman, even while it professes to be trying to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Afghanistan. Somehow the drone assassinations, ‘woopsie, bugsplat’ civilian kills and night aids have aided that brilliant idea.

Will more Americans ever have the courage to consider that the entire War Machine is so vast and enormously profitable that our Empire actually goes searching for ‘enemies’, and that it’s really the Masters of War who should be indicted and tried?  Will enough of us ever be able to convince them that this Empire is dying and should understand that it’s time to wind down the Machine before those we’ve wronged come for us?  That we might instead be Waging Peace as an alternative?  As I type Israel is bombing every building in Gaza that might be construed as a Hamas ‘stronghold’, and the US pretends that it’s helpless to make them Stop.It.Now.  But…oh…Obomba says ‘it’s preferable’ that Israel doesn’t launch a ground invasion.

Oh, you Masters of War

You fasten all the triggers for others to fire

Then you sit back and watch as the death count gets higher…

~ Bob Dylan

Photo by Canada in Afghanistan under Creative Commons license.