STAFF SERGEANT Robert “Bobby’’ Bales’s decade-long Army record is a Rorschach Test of issues facing the military. It’s not a clear picture, but there are a lot of shapes and squiggles into which much could be read: strain from multiple deployments; financial problems; traumatic injuries; emotional pain from witnessing death and dismemberment; hostility toward the enemy that bleeds into racism (“Giving money to Hagji [sic] instead of bullets doesn’t seem right,’’ he reportedly wrote on Facebook, invoking a slang term for Arabs).
As policymakers grope for answers to why this 38-year-old former high school football player killed 16 unarmed civilians execution-style, they would do well to look into all those issues and more. Obviously, thousands of soldiers face the same stresses and perform heroically day after day. But it takes only one non-commissioned officer with a gun to commit mass murder, and to do grave offense to the national honor. There’s a natural reluctance to extrapolate too much from Bales’s story - to shy away from any suggestion that there may be others like Bales out there in the ranks - but an honest examination of the strains facing the military is both appropriate and necessary.
Even if there weren’t any reason to worry about Bales-like massacres, there would be cause for concern over the health of soldiers who face repeated deployments, combat fatigue, and marital and financial pressures, particularly for those over 30. The end of the Iraq war and the planned drawdown in Afghanistan will reduce exposure in the short term, but national security threats aren’t disappearing, and neither are the pundits who are blithely calling for intervention in places like Iran and Syria. Before stepping into constant war footing, America needs a realistic assessment of how much its military can reasonably handle - and how much pressure is simply too much.