The notorious Afghan massacre suspect has disappeared without a trace from army websites. All photos and combat service details have been removed – but even the military can’t clear the world’s caches.
Immediately after the Pentagon released his name to the press, thousands of copies of Staff Sgt. Bales’ photo were published, and details of his four tours of combat shared. There were even excerpts from his wife’s blog. So why bother trying to delete the un-deletable?
According to McClatchy DC, the military said its intention in removing the material wasn't to lessen the army's embarrassment over the horrific attack, but to protect the privacy of Bales' family. Quoting an unnamed Pentagon official, the paper said that “protecting a military family has to be a priority” and that they “owe it to the wife and kids to do what we can."
The wife and kids, who have been moved to a military base in Washington State for “security reasons”, have refrained from speculative comments, but Karylin Bales has issued a statement saying both her and her husband’s extended families are “profoundly sad” and offering condolences to the people of the Panjawai District in Afghanistan, where the massacre occurred.
Staff Sgt Bales’ wife went on to add: “Our family has little information beyond what we read and see in the media. What has been reported is completely out of character of the man I know and admire.” As his wife of some years and mother to his two kids, her statement of knowing this man certainly appears to carry some weight – at least, at first glance. But constantly emerging details of the man, his past, his combat tours create such a conflicting profile that it becomes almost impossible to say who knew him, or how well.
Robert Bales enlisted in the army two months after the tragedy of 9/11. He is still referred to as “our Bobby” in his hometown of Norwood, Ohio, where neighbors say his family’s motto was “God, country, family” and Robert, the youngest of five brothers, was a respectful and well-liked boy. “That’s not Bobby” was the sentiment of his mother, one which was echoed by the community.
He was a good student, and a good football player. But apparently he was never great and that seems to be a leitmotif of his life. He was never the star of the team. He didn’t graduate from college. His career as a stockbroker was brief and unsuccessful, ending with accusations of defrauding an elderly couple out of their life savings. He ignored the $1.5 million fine he was ordered to pay. His own investment company appears to have failed. A 2002 arrest for drunken assault and a 2009 charge of a hit-and-run were, if not indicators of a potentially troubled man, then at least signs of his existing personal demons.
His military career, which some suggest may have been a way to reinvent himself, seems to follow the same pattern. His platoon leader spoke highly of him, his fellow officers respected him. Yet his military record is an undistinguished one. He was never deployed as a sniper, despite being trained as one. He didn't receive the Purple Heart that would be expected following a serious injury in combat. And last year he didn't receive a much- hoped-for promotion to sergeant first class.
His lawyers are planning to put the emphasis on his four tours of duty, claiming that injuries and mental trauma created diminished mental capacity. But military officials insisted that Bales had been properly screened and declared fit for combat.
The 38-year-old soldier will be charged with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder, six counts of aggravated assault as well as dereliction of duty and other violations of military law, a US official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Legal experts say Bales could face the death penalty if convicted of the crime. But with his record and injuries he might be shown some leniency by the military jury even if convicted.
Of the long list of alleged US atrocities – from prison massacres in World War II to the slaughter of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam – relatively few high-profile war crimes believed to have involved Americans in the past century have resulted in convictions, let alone the death penalty.
In the case of My Lai, President Richard Nixon reduced the only prison sentence given to three years of house arrest. In the 2005 Haditha shooting of Iraqi civilians, eight Marines were charged but plea deals and promises of immunity in exchange for testimony meant there were no prison sentences.
The military hasn't executed a service member since 1961 and even if the death sentence was passed, the military wouldn’t have the equipment to carry it out. Over the last 50 years, more than half the death penalty cases have been overturned by military appeals courts. So only time will show what military justice deems an appropriate punishment for murdering 16 civilians, nine of whom were children. But the mystery of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and why he pulled the trigger that night will most likely remain unsolved.
Katerina Azarova, RT