March 18, 2012

And DOD's Flattering Pics of Bales are Evidence of What?


We’re looking at the unusual first images of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales released by the government, and we’ve got questions. Of course, there’s the issue of what kind of sensitivity it shows to the Afghanis. Even more so, however, from a domestic standpoint, we’re wondering how much DOD’s release of such hearty pics of Robert Bales speak to the Pentagon looking out for its soldier, or for a system that broke him?

If the government’s aim, in introducing Robert Bales, was more sensitive to the outrage in Afghanistan, you’d expect the media and the public’s first look at him would involve the release of one of those official portraits with the flag in the background (or, even a screen shot from the unreleased video of Bales returning to base immediately after the massacre he inflicted in Kandahar).


That’s not anywhere close to the first images from the DOD and the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS), however, the hints of a strategy only taking shape now after six remarkable days of silence. It’s not that the military would attempt to appease Karzai and the Afghani’s. Far from it, though, the empathetic and even dashing training photos of Bales at an Army training center in California just last August — the only pictures released by the DOD so far — dovetail with the line of explanation of a good but overburdened soldier in the throes of trauma.

If the DOD’s PR reflects a calculus that comes out on the side of the troops over the righteous anger of the Afghans, however, at what point does a strategy absolving the U.S. because of one solider’s trauma turn into blaming that soldier for the system that broke him?

Via the NYT:

Pentagon officials, who have been scouring the sergeant’s military and health records for clues, have said little about what they think motivated the killings. But one senior government official said Thursday that Sergeant Bales had been drinking alcohol before the killings and that he might have had marital problems.


Although Bales’ lawyer is already challenging the intimation about marital problems and substance abuse, the visual media is already bulking up the storyline of a soldier whose life was upside down. Most indicative is this photo taken yesterday of the front porch of his now-empty house.

With the man on his fourth tour of duty; the family under serious financial difficulty (the Bales’ underwater on the mortgage and the house recently put up for sale); Bales having lost part of a foot, incurring several head injuries and reportedly having witnessed a friend severely wounded the day before the massacre, just what is it the military purports to show us with the initial set of photos?

Is it a good soldier, one who was looking and acting just fine until recently, who ultimately couldn’t hold it together and ended up discrediting the Service and his country? …Or, is what we’re looking at the picture of a good soldier who was broken by a disastrous foreign policy, and — as the NYT starts to detail — the effects of a mind-breaking system on top of an abusive amount and intensity of deployment.

(photo 1: Spc Ryan Hallock/AFP caption: Robert Bales during an army exercise at Fort Irwin, 2: Ted S Warren/AP caption: The front porch of Robert Bales’s empty house.)

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Michael Shaw
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