While media are paying scant attention to the Bradley Manning trial this week, another court-martial this week deserves more coverage as well.
In a courtroom base near Tacoma, Washington, Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will plead guilty today to killing 16 civilians–most of them women and children–in an Afghan village on March 11, 2012. Bales will give his first account of the attack under oath as part of the hearing, in order to avoid the death penalty (New York Times, 6/05/13). The incident remains one of the most shocking slaughters of civilians in the Afghan War. The massacre received some media attention at the time, though much of that discussion was about the problems it would pose for the U.S. war there.
A little more than a year later, U.S. media seem to have not much interest left in the Bales case. Last week, the New York Times (5/30/13) and the Washington Post (5/30/13) had brief stories that discussed the upcoming plea, as well as giving some background on the attack and the fact that Bales may have been under the influence of alcohol, drugs or steroids. The reports also mention that Bales might have post-traumatic stress disorder.
CBS Evening News (5/29/13) turned in one of the longest stories about the case–but its point seemed to be that Afghans were ready to forgive. Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer went back to the village of Alokazai to interview locals and U.S. military personnel. Captain Shane Oravsky tells Palmer that there are no indications that civilians want revenge, remarking, "I know back home where I'm from I'd have a hard time forgetting it."
Soundbites from civilians are reassuring, and make it seem like there is no lingering animosity towards troops in the area. A tribal elder explains, "We condemn what [Bales] did, but we are not going to blame the whole United States," and a local police commander even says that he "supports the Americans staying in our villages."
Palmer sums up the state of things this way:
A glimmer of hope and resistance emerging from one of the grimmest chapters of the Afghan war.
A rather glossy take on the aftermath of a horrible massacre.
A very different account of the villagers' perspectives can be found in an Associated Press dispatch (5/16/13), where men and women explain the horror of seeing their family members murdered, the injuries they received and the pain they still feel from the massacre. A woman saw Bales shove a pistol into her baby's mouth and remembers screaming at him. Bales did not hurt her child, but he did apparently kill her husband. "I just want to see him killed," she said of Bales. "I want to see him dead. Then I can let go."
And in a more recent Associated Press story (5/30/13), Gene Johnson included interviews with two men who lost multiple family members during the massacre. One of the men explained that the plea deal to eliminate the death penalty is not acceptable, saying, "If he does not hang, I will have my revenge." Another man, who lost 11 family members that night, said, "For this one thing, we would kill 100 American soldiers."
And a USA Today piece (6/5/13) quoted one of the same Afghan villagers, who had lost four family members: "A prison sentence doesn't mean anything…. I know we have no power now, but I will become stronger, and if he does not hang, I will have my revenge."
Updated to reflect that one villager is quoted in two articles.