Choosing Another Path, Before It’s Too Late
by Terri Shofner
There are two soldiers that represent so much of what is wrong in our war culture. One is Bradley Manning and the other is Robert Bales.
Bradley Manning, a queer boy bullied at home and abroad, in a final bid to fit the expected “tough boy” mold, joined the Army. In a futile attempt to suppress his feminine side, the very side that yelled every time he watched innocent people die needlessly, he finally succumbed in a desperate hope and belief that if American people could see the horror of war they would stop it. The kinds of atrocities that tore at the soul of Manning were exactly that very evil allegedly committed by Robert Bales.
Robert Bales is the Army Sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers as they slept, including nine children. What drives a father of two to kill the sleeping children of others? What could have been in his mind as he stabbed innocent babes to death? Revenge? At whom? The Army that sent him back even after he’d suffered a brain injury? The villagers because he’d seen his friend lose a leg to a bomb earlier in the week and so he blamed all Afghans? At himself, hoping someone would stop him, put him out of his own misery and inability to help his own family — who, at that moment, were losing their home?
Both of these soldiers come from the Midwest; Manning from Oklahoma and Bales from Ohio. After Manning’s parents divorced, when he was 13, Manning moved to Wales with his mother. There he suffered bullying in the school system due to his effeminate nature. After passing his secondary school certification exams he returned to Oklahoma City to live with his father. Difficulties at home drove him to move in with an aunt in Washington D.C. After a series of low-paying jobs he enlisted in the Army and trained as an intelligence analyst. He was later deployed to Iraq, all the while a victim of redneck bullying by men probably much like our second soldier.
Bales is a well-established tough guy, fitting all the characteristics mandated by our violent, male-centric society. He played football through high school and college. He was 27 when 9/11/01 occurred. Two months later he enlisted to exact revenge for his country. One year into his service he was brought up on assault charges, which resulted in a warning from the judge to get anger management counseling. He gave up the next 11 years of his life in multiple deployments, the last one seemingly pushing him over the edge. While his government made up lies about WMD to send him to fight in Iraq, his family struggled in the failing war economy at home. Three days before his rampage his wife listed the house on the market, a short sell, as they owe more than the house is worth, and they are behind in their payments.
Robert Bales had been a soldier in good standing, having been awarded several medals, suffering a couple injuries in the line of duty, including a head trauma. He fit the American stereotype of a hero, but was really a monster in the making. He begged the Army not to send him back, but lacked the courage to stand firm and refuse redeployment so that he could protect his own home and family.
While Manning seemed far from hero material, he showed great courage by pulling back the veil on these wars. He showed us the murderers of the war — those who, as Bales is alleged to have done, engaged in killing because they’ve had too much trauma or stress and are no longer in touch with their humanity. How many more massacres, suicides, and homeless vets and homeless families will it take for Americans to begin to put it all together and see that war, and our “kick-ass” mentality, is just wrong. So many American men have been reduced to the level of mad dogs by this thinking and the alpha males in Washington D.C. are doing little to help them, their families, or the rest of us.
Both men sit in cells in Ft. Leavenworth. One has endured ten months of torture and abuse in Quantico before being transferred after pressure from a concerned public. His life has been dragged through the media, making a mockery of all that is sensitive and caring in his nature, reminding us all that the worst thing to be in a war culture is a woman or woman-like. The other has been treated with compassion and understanding by his captors and the mainstream media. The sad plight of his family is being used as an excuse for his behavior. One will likely spend the rest of his days in a military prison while the other might spend a few years in the system, only to be released into Dante’s next level of Hell, reintegration into a world he’s long lost touch with — or has he?
We are all victims of a war culture. We live in a society that can more quickly forgive a soldier who murders children in their sleep than it can a soldier who reveals the dark secrets of war, embarrassing higher-ups on The Hill with their own leaked words. In truth, Manning embarrassed us all, as war is fought in our names in what we so proudly call a democracy.
War and violence require secrecy. A culture of peace has nothing to hide. There’s no need for WikiLeaks in that world. What if America had evolved to embody peaceful ideas instead of perpetual violence and expansion? We might still have a state-paid body of rigorously trained people who could employ the latest technologies to help our brothers and sisters across the globe. Rather than kill their children to get their oil, we could exchange food and other products or services, providing them with farming technology rather than leaving their fields barren and toxic and littered with unexploded ordnance to ensure we continue to kill their children long after our troops leave.
We used violence to break free of an Empire more than 200 years ago, and we continued to use violence to take over the lands of the First Peoples — and now we have become that which we once fought so hard to escape, an evil colonizing empire projecting power across the globe with an iron fist that has now outdone the British Empire.
Our children are weaned on First-shooter video games, teaching their malleable brains how to kill from an early age. The Department of Defense has infiltrated our High Schools and our childrens’ private records for recruitment based on personal family demographics, thanks to the No Child Left Behind legislation, clearly meaning no child left un-recruited. Since the early 1990s, fifth graders across America have enjoyed a fun-filled week at a military base under the guise of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in a program named Starbase. They also get to tour the grounds, touch armored vehicles, look into cockpits of fighter jets, play with bomb diffusing robots and other whiz-bang technology ultimately intended to destroy human life. Even my seven-year-old daughter is not immune to the toxic environment that the war system brings. In her after school program she played with Legos with a boy her age. I commented that it looked like they had built a great city, but they excitedly corrected me that it was, in fact, bombs going off. My country has become so very entangled in the war system. The economies of most cities depend on Pentagon contracts to survive. We all contribute via our tax dollars, and often directly with our labor and knowledge in research. We suckle at the teats of this monster while it starves us both body and soul.
In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about the Military Industrial Complex as he made his exit from the White House. We didn’t listen. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, showing the Vietnam War with all its depravity reaching to the very top. Still we didn’t listen. In 2010 WikiLeaks exposed volumes of memos and videos of troops gunning down unarmed journalists and civilians from a helicopter, purportedly supplied by Manning. Still we don’t listen. We ignore our own children as they toy with concepts of mass killing and death. We ignore our own hearts at our own peril. War has always been immoral. The question is, are you? All it takes to change is for you, me, and a few million of our closest friends to change our minds, to value life over death. Bradley may die in prison, but he’ll die with a clear conscience. He did the best he could to show us the truth. Bales will not have that option. If he did those murders, he’s taken what cannot be repaid. His best hope is to spend the rest of his days caring for war orphans to heal his own deep wounds and theirs. The karmic wheel of life will exact a toll on him far greater than any court could assign.
As these stories fade from the headlines, what will be their legacy? Will we learn or will we continue, killing more innocent human beings in Iran, or some other place simply to keep the engines of our cars and our war machine churning? Change takes courage. I challenge us all to have that courage to turn away from this and find another path before it is too late.
Terri Shofner parents, teaches peace, and does tech industry work in Portland, Oregon.