The Rampage of Sgt. Bales

“My rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me.”  -Achilles

At the beginning of the Iliad, we find Achilles sulking in his tent.  Refusing to fight, because Agamemnon took his sexy, blonde war prize, Achilles doesn’t lift a finger even when the Trojans threaten to burn all the Greek ships.  But then his best friend and lover, Patroclus, is killed by Hector.  Enraged by the death, Achilles goes crazy and commits one of the great slaughters in literary history.  So many Trojans are butchered during the rampage that Scamander, a river God, objects to the amount of blood that’s polluting his water.  Undeterred by even a God, Achilles continues to kill everyone he finds until he finds Hector, stabs him through the throat, drags his body behind a chariot, and then subjects the corpse to twelve days of abuse.  At last, even the Greek Gods are sickened, not an otherwise squeamish bunch, and order Achilles to give up the body.

Achilles is a mythic figure, but art imitates life, and Homer based the action of his epic in a common experience of war.  Combat breeds violence, and occasional incidents of berserk behavior.  It’s one of the reasons Sherman said war is hell; his soldiers were frequently accused of atrocities.

There are numerous examples.  For sheer size, we can go to Tamerlane’s sack of Delhi in 1398.  In his memoirs, Tamerlane claimed he lost control of his soldiers, leading to three days of pillage, rape, and slaughter.  When the festivities finally ended, the great conqueror boasted that his troops collected 50-100 slaves each as part of their booty.  Large sections of Delhi were a ghost town for decades.  Tamerlane carted home a wagon train of nine elephants laden with jewels.

The Rape of Nanking by Japanese soldiers left 200,000 dead, after the city had already surrendered.  Thousands of women were hunted down and gang-raped.  Sons were made to have sex with their mothers and fathers with daughters.  The terror lasted for six weeks, because it took that long for the commander to notice.  The general was later hung for dereliction of duty resulting in war crimes.

In Vietnam, men of C Company murdered 400-500 unarmed men, women, and children.  They killed everything in sight, including the animals, in a form of feeding frenzy.  Old men were bayoneted.  Praying mothers and children were shot in the back of the head.  A girl was gang raped and killed.  Lieutenant Calley herded a group of villagers into a ditch and executed them with a machine gun.  After an investigation, Lieutenant Calley was the only person convicted of a crime, for murdering 22 civilians.  He served three and a half years under house arrest and today is an insurance salesman.

In 2005, in the Iraqi town of Haditha, an IED exploded under a humvee, blowing it in half and killing or wounding everybody on board.  In response, according to prosecutors, Sgt. Frank Wuterich lost control and led his squad on a rampage that killed 24 unarmed civilians.  First, they ordered five men out of a car and shot them in the street.  They then stormed three houses with grenades and machine gun fire, killing 19 more, including children and seniors, some shot multiple times at close range.  Sergeant Wuterich pleaded to negligent dereliction of duty, was busted to a private, and did no time in prison.

The recent rampage by Sergeant Bales is another example.  He is charged with murdering 17 unarmed civilians, including four women and nine children, and then burning some of the bodies.  He lost a close friend shortly before.  He didn’t want to be in Afghanistan in the first place.

Despite the terrible tragedy, the fact that it occurred is not a surprise.  Men have acted like Sergeant Bales since the beginning of warfare.  War is an immoral undertaking, in part because it returns us to a bestial frame of mind.  To kill other people, we must dehumanize them, along with ourselves.

Nevertheless, our society will act as if the sergeant was a deranged criminal, engaging in an act that had nothing to do with the war.  We’re already hearing about his felonious past, probable drinking problems, and questionable financial dealings.  In other words, he is nothing like the other brave heroes still fighting for the nation.  Who knows what makes people do what they do?

Americans simply don’t like the answer.  It’s not a mystery.  War makes people like Sergeant Bales do what they do.  Our wars.  We’re all complicit.  If the sergeant was simply released, he’d probably be an insurance agent.

He can’t be excused, of course, but neither can the war.  All war is depraved, and an incident like this is one of the symptoms.  Before we condemn Sergeant Bales, before we turn him into the creature from another world, let’s make sure we admit the blood that is on all our hands.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

2 Responses to “The Rampage of Sgt. Bales”

  1. …a sad “well done” from across the holler

  2. Very well said!

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