Does Robert Bales, the army staff sergeant who allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians on March 11, symbolize a larger problem in our military ranks? In this web-exclusive video, Vietnam veteran and military scholar Andrew Bacevich talks with Bill Moyers about Bales’ accountability, the stress of repeated tours on soldiers, and how war itself “compromises our humanity.”
This weekend on public television, Moyers and Bacevich explore the futility of “endless” wars, and provide a reality check on the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.
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BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you as an old warrior and Vietnam veteran, how you come to terms with a cold-blooded massacre committed against civilians by another soldier?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I find it very troubling. But I think I’m— reluctant to see it as somehow— emblematic of the values that prevail— in the ranks. There will be those who will want to excuse the actions of Sergeant Bales— who will— cite— growing evidence of his personal difficulties, who will note that this was his— fourth— combat tour— as a way to— wave it away. I certainly wouldn’t wanna go— in that direction either. He needs to be held accountable. Those who sent him on this fourth combat tour need to be held accountable. But Sergeant Bales is not somehow a symbol of the larger U.S. military.
BILL MOYERS: On the way to the studio this morning, the taxi driver was lamenting the fact that his niece, who joined and went to Iraq four years ago, I believe it was, has now had two terms. And— and he was saying, “How can he do this?”
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I— I think what— what— what I find shocking is the profession of people to be shocked, that we have these soldiers going back for repeated tours. It’s been reported for years now. It— it ought to be common knowledge. And it ought to be common knowledge that Americans generally find— unacceptable, or at least disturbing. I mean, what do we think is going to result— when we embark upon open-ended wars, to which roughly 1% of the American people are committed in terms of active engagement, and we send them back again and again and again. I mean, in— in a sense, I think as— terrible— as this episode is, it really pales, I think, in comparison to what we already know about the epidemic P.T.S.D. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which is already one of the results of the Iraq and Afghanistan’s wars.
BILL MOYERS: I can’t recall, were— were— were there rotations in Vietnam?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. The— the average tour of duty, the standard tour of duty in Vietnam was— was one year. And that war did go on long enough that there were certain numbers of soldiers, not me— who were— deployed— involuntarily for a second or a third tour. But in nowhere near the numbers— that— is the case today, because the wars have gone on today twice as long as the Vietnam War. The older I get— the more I am persuaded that war is not simply evil and therefore to be avoided if at all— if— if— if at all possible. But war is— destructive of the human spirit. War compromises our humanity. There may be some people who walk away from the experience of combat and are better as a consequence. But I’m persuaded that those people are few in number. And that for the great majority— there are wounds that may not be visible— or that may not become visible— until years— after the fact. I cannot say that I came away from my Vietnam service particularly traumatized. But as time has gone along, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which friends of mine, classmates of mine from West Point were traumatized— whose lives were deeply— affected. Sometimes in ways that were not immediately evident back when we were in our 20s or in our— in our 30s. But it’s— it’s an evil thing.