U.S. Soldier Describes Gruesome Killings After Pleading Guilty To Afghan Massacre Of 2012

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was considered a fit and able soldier before his “heinous and despicable” act of mass murder on Afghanistan civilians.  Image @Aljazeera

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was considered a fit and able soldier before his “heinous and despicable” act of mass murder of Afghanistan civilians. Image @Aljazeera

It was a story both stunning and gruesome, an impossible act reminiscent of the My Lai Massacre of the Viet Nam war with its brutal and unjustified killing of men, women and children. In this case, it was one soldier, two Afghan villages, three families and two inexplicable raids over the course of one long night on March 11, 2012. Of the 22 victims, 17 were women or children; 16 of those victims died, most shot at point-blank range to the head, some stabbed, some burned post-mortem; most were either sleeping or in bed at the time. It was a staggering crime that has come to be known as the “Kandahar Massacre” and the alleged perpetrator, U.S. Army Staff Sargent Robert Bales, has now pleaded guilty, claiming “not a good reason in this world” for his heinous act.

The Joint Base Lewis-McChord military facility in South Seattle, with its charming historic buildings and lush green lawns, has been the location of Sgt. Bales’ incarceration since his return to the States and was also the site of the hearing on Wed. June 5th in which Bales made his plea: “guilty” on 16 counts of premeditated murder and other charges attached to the case. It is understood that his plea has been entered to avoid the death penalty, something both prosecutors and defense attorneys see as a “win/win.” With issues of PTSD and traumatic brain injury on the table, as well as the fact that he had reportedly been drinking alcohol and snorting Valium that night provided by other soldiers, it was considered unlikely that the death penalty would ultimately be handed down.

The victims’ families, however, see little “win/win” about the plea. They told the Associated Press that “they are irate at the notion Bales will escape execution for one of the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan war.”

“A prison sentence doesn’t mean anything,” said Said Jan, whose wife and three other relatives were slain. “I know we have no power now. But I will become stronger, and if he does not hang, I will have my revenge.”

One of the most excruciating elements of the Wednesday hearing was the opportunity, for the first time, to hear Bales’ personal account of the night and his actions throughout the massacre. Others have testified prior, including many of the surviving children:

A young girl in a bright headscarf described hiding behind her father as he was shot to death. Boys told of hiding behind curtains as others scrambled and begged the soldier to spare them, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A thick-bearded man told of being shot in the neck by a gunman “as close as this bottle,” gesturing to a water bottle on a table in front of him. CBS News

A courtroom sketch shows seven-year-old Zardana, who was shot in the head during the March 2012 massacres in Afghanistan and nearly died, testifies via video link in the military trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. / LOIS SILVER/CBS NEWS Image @ CBS News

A courtroom sketch shows seven-year-old Zardana, who was shot in the head during the March 2012 massacres in Afghanistan and nearly died, testifies via video link in the military trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. / LOIS SILVER/CBS NEWS Image @ CBS News

But beyond written and signed “stipulation of fact” documents, Bales’ personal testimony had not been heard until the June 5th hearing and it was shocking in its candor.

He sat at the defense table and read from a statement, without hesitation or equivocation, describing a night in which he left his remote base at Camp Belambay in the Kandahar Province armed with a 9 mm pistol and M-4 rifle with a grenade launcher. He first went to Alkozai, a randomly chosen village near the base, and, without provocation, proceeded to wake up and murder 4 civilians and injure 6 others. He then went back to the base, woke up one of his fellow soldiers to tell him about the event, which clearly appeared so unfathomable that the soldier didn’t believe him and went back to sleep, an unexpected plot point with tragic results: Bales then left the base again, this time to Nijiban, another nearby village, to commence his second slaughter, which involved the deaths of 12 more civilians.

More from the Huffington Post:

Bales, 39, said he left his base and went to the nearby villages of mud-walled compounds. Once inside, he said he “formed the intent” of killing the victims, then shot each one.

“This act was without legal justification, sir,” Bales told the judge while seated at a defense table, his handles folded in front of him.

Lt. Col. Jay Morse, one of the prosecutors, raised concerns during the hearing that the soldier’s testimony contradicted what he earlier acknowledged in a signed “stipulation of facts” from that night.

Morse noted Bales testified that he made the decision to kill each victim when he raised his gun and pointed it at them. But in the stipulation, Bales said he struggled with one of the women before killing her, and that “after the tussle” he decided to “murder anyone that he saw.”

The judge [Col. Jeffery Nance] questioned Bales about it, and Bales confirmed that he had decided to kill everyone after struggling with the woman.

At one point, Nance asked Bales why he committed the slayings.

Bales responded: “Sir, as far as why – I’ve asked that question a million times since then. There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”

One of the more gruesome aspects of the massacre, the discovery that some of the victims’ bodies had been burned, seemed to indicate a scope to the slaughter that implied more than one perpetrator, with some witnesses confirming that suspicion. But the Army always believed there was only one person involved and many other witnesses spoke of only one soldier, which clearly turned out to be the case. When Bales was implicated, his reasoning behind the burnings was particularly scrutinized, as it indicated a level of violence against innocent civilians that was hard to reconcile with the role of the American soldiers in the region. When the judge asked Bales about the burnings, he asserted that he remembered kerosene lanterns being there, he remembered a fire; he even remembered finding matches in his pocket when he finally got back to the base, but he claimed he had no memory of actually setting any fires. At the persistent questioning of the judge as to whether or not he likely set the bodies on fire, he finally acquiesced:

“It’s the only thing that makes sense, sir.”

The judge also asked him questions related to whether he felt legal justification for killing the victims, whether he was acting in any kind of self-defense, or if he ever felt coerced or forced by anyone else to commit his crimes; to each of these he answered, “No.”

The only non-guilty plea was to a charge that was later dropped: impeding the investigation by breaking his laptop computer after being taken into custody. As for the guilty plea, Judge Nance has accepted it, which means a jury will decide at an August sentencing hearing whether Bales will be sentenced to life with or without the possibility of parole.

And as is often the case when senseless assault and murder have been perpetrated against so many, particularly children asleep in their beds, it’s difficult to conjure up much concern for the perpetrator’s life when most of his very innocent victims have irretrievably lost theirs.