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Afghan killings point to the limits of an all-volunteer army

International Military InterventionsAfghanistanIraqRobert BalesHomicideWorld War II (1939-1945)

The American soldier accused of massacring 17 people in a solo rampage on a remote southern Afghanistan village faces multiple charges of murder and attempted murder. Whisked out of the country by the Army, he is now being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

With the Afghan government clamoring for justice, nothing less seems appropriate, pending the thorough Army investigation into the horrible episode in which nine of the fatalities are said to have been children and others women. At least six other villagers were wounded.

The defendant, 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, was serving his fourth combat tour in the Middle East. He walked out of his small outpost in Kandahar province on March 11 and, after the attack, returned and turned himself in.

According to his lawyer, John Henry Browne, Mr. Bales says he doesn't remember some of the things that occurred in the attack. He has said he suffered a concussion earlier in Iraq, when a vehicle in which he was riding rolled over, but that he never sought or received medical treatment at the time.

That observation, and the lawyer's subsequent comment that "there's definitely brain injury," suggests a possible line of exculpation other than a defense of innocence in the case. Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded that American counterinsurgency forces stay out of such Afghan villages.

U.S. Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan, told Congress the other day an investigation will be held into Sergeant Bales' military unit and the headquarters supervising it. At the same time, court and personal records on Mr. Bales in Washington State, where his home military base is located near Tacoma, have surfaced indicating incidents of past scuffles with police.

None of this, however, goes to a more pertinent question that cannot acquit the accused soldier of personal responsibility but that needs better answers from the U.S. government: Why was this soldier, or any member of the American armed forces for that matter, sent into a fourth deployment in a hot combat zone, with the general recognition of the psychological as well as physical pressures involved?

One obvious answer is that individuals who join the all-volunteer military have to expect they will be assigned as military circumstances dictate. Another is that with the U.S. military stretched thin in two wars, for more than a decade in Afghanistan and nearly as long in Iraq, multiple combat deployments have been inevitable.

The latter point reinforces the reality that the burden of two wars, one of them a war of choice in Iraq, continues to fall on a very narrow segment of the American population -- the men and women in uniform and their families left back home. Many of them have had to endure multiple separations, with multiple personal, financial and psychological complications, over a longer time than ever before in American history.

The Civil War lasted nearly four years, and actual U.S. combat in World War I lasted less than two years, in World War II less than four years, in Korea three years and in Vietnam about nine -- all of shorter duration than the current engagement in Afghanistan. In World War II especially, Americans enlisted or were drafted for "the duration," and those sent to Europe and the Pacific seldom got home before it was over.

The obvious if not easily achieved solution is to get out of the war in Iraq -- a pledge Barack Obama made as a presidential nominee in 2008 -- and to wrap up the war in Afghanistan. As president, he claims to have ended the U.S. combat role in the former and to be working toward the latter.

Meantime, the unintended consequences of continued American foreign-policy involvement not only impede that objective but also exact a heavier price on those in uniform and their kin who are obliged to pursue it.

At a minimum, the Pentagon should be addressing this inequitable matter of multiple deployments to combat zones. And Congress needs to prod the Obama administration to put a limit on how much is demanded of the limited number of military men and women whose lives are being repeatedly disrupted, while the rest of us go about our normal business.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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