Afghan Massacre: How Accountable Are We If Our Brain Is Injured?

The Afghan shooting rampage—who's finally to blame?

Posted Mar 19, 2012

Out of context, such a question might sound strange—or possibly stupid. After all, if we're not responsible for our brain and what it tells us to do, who would be? But on the other hand, what if we have a diseased brain—say, a schizophrenic's? Or what if—perhaps because of some combination of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and protracted situational stress—we suffer a psychotic break?

In such instances, ethically—or humanely—speaking, how much responsibility ought we to be given for errant behavior? Even, that is, if the act we commit in such a disturbed state is absolutely atrocious? For if our behavior is driven by a "compromised" brain, one that seriously impairs our judgment or ability to control our impulses, aren't we (in some unorthodox ethical sense) "innocent"? How much do we deserve be held accountable when our blatantly unacceptable deeds may have been dictated by a brain so disordered, so disoriented, so out of any rational control, that in the moment we simply lack the capacity to distinguish right from wrong?

These somber reflections, which indirectly support the increasingly denigrated insanity defense, arise directly from my hearing about the horridly aberrant behavior now alleged to American staff sergeant Robert Bales. He's the suspect who, stationed on a small base in the volatile Panjwaqi district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, by all reports apparently went berserk.

In the dead of night, illicitly leaving his combat outpost and wearing night-vision goggles, he is accused of walking into two villages, entering three huts and opening fire—in the process, wantonly killing 16 unarmed people, including three women and nine children, as well as pouring chemicals over some of the dead bodies and burning them. One description of his behavior, reported by an eye-witness survivor, suggests his crazed state: "He was walking around taking up positions in the house—in two or three places like he was searching. He was on his knees when he shot my father in the thigh."

As I shook my head in puzzled horror over the news, my first thought was that there was probably a lot more to this incident than was being reported. And, sure enough, I soon learned that the officer, trained as a sniper, was on his fourth tour of duty in a war zone, the first three being in Iraq. Prior to his current deployment, he'd suffered a TBI when, because of an improvised explosive device (IED), the Humvee carrying him flipped over. Then, in a second bomb-related incident, he lost part of his foot. And, linked to the first two accidents, he was probably also plagued with PTSD.

Not surprisingly, the first reaction—from both the Taliban and the Afghan government—was a call for retaliation, demanding punishment commensurate to the crime. Although the U.S. did not argue (as did some members of the bellicose Taliban) that the mentally disturbed soldier be beheaded, Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, did talk openly about the death penalty as a possible option for Bales' terrible deed. Additionally, Pentagon officials suggested that he might well be charged with premeditated murder, which would also warrant his being put to death.

I found such a rush to judgment—or proposals for dire retribution—saddening. I understand that matters of politics might initially necessitate that the U.S. take a firm, punitive stand on the matter. But it still seemed fairly obvious that what we were probably dealing with here wasn't so much criminal behavior (though no doubt it was that) as serious psychopathology. In all likelihood, a mental disorder intimately tied to Bales' being on his fourth deployment in 11 years—not to mention, once again, his TBI, traumatic foot injury, and probable PTSD, as well as the acute situational stress of his present assignment. And here it might also be noted that the day before Bales' shooting rampage, a friend and fellow soldier had his leg blown off by an IED while he was standing next to him.

Although immediately after the killing spree, the military released only a limited amount of information about Bales to the media, each day more facts come to light. The single, biggest development in the news occurred last Thursday, a day after Bales hired John Henry Browne—a well-known Seattle criminal attorney—to represent him. And, not unsurprisingly, much of what this attorney has said to the press is at odds with what's been disclosed by government officials.

Countering the opinion of one senior American official, who contended that "when it all comes out" the staff sergeant's psychotic break will be found to be "a combination of stress, alcohol, and domestic issues," Browne has argued forcibly for an interpretation placing much less of the blame for Bales' "snapping" on the staff sergeant's coping insufficiencies—and considerably more on the military's ill-advised (and maybe even reckless) treatment of him.

To begin with, Browne has claimed that no one in Bales' family was aware of his having a drinking problem. Additionally, earlier government reports of his marriage as "failing" were, he said, "nonsense." To Browne, the couple had "a very strong marriage...[with] a lot of love, a lot of respect"—a favorable estimation with which both family members and friends appear to concur (though, frankly, it's hard to believe that his four deployments wouldn't have taken some toll on their relationship, as is so frequently the case).

from Norwood (Cincinnati) High School 1991 Yearbook

Browne's main focus, however, has been on the exemplary "character" of the staff sergeant. And there seems to be little doubt that Bales' joining the military, at age 27, was motivated primarily by patriotic idealism. Bales enlisted within a week of the 9/11 catastrophe, which for Browne underscores that "he felt it was his duty to stand up for the United States." Beyond that, Bales had no reports in his dossier suggesting any sort of misbehavior, and in fact had received many decorations attesting to his loyalty and valor. Which is especially curious because military officials, while minimizing the possibility of his having any serious TBI or PTSD, have described the suspect's army career as "unremarkable."

Perhaps the staff sergeant's laudable military ethic is best suggested in a 2009 article published in the Fort Lewis Northwest Guardian, in which he discussed dealing with the dead and wounded in Iraq when his unit was sent to recover a downed Apache helicopter: "I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day, for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants, and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us."

As I've already indicated, it's only to be expected that as Bales' attorney Browne would want to make statements calling into question those incriminating assertions, or hypotheses, made earlier by government officials. But he stresses additionally that not only had his client (seemingly burned out with fighting and wanting to get on with his life) fervently hoped that he would not be deployed for yet a fourth time, but also that he'd actually been assured that he wouldn't be sent to Afghanistan. Before, that is, this past December when, virtually overnight, he was redeployed. Inferring the Army's wish to downplay any responsibility it might have for this terrible tragedy, Browne declared: "The government is going to want to blame this on an individual rather than blame it on the war."

In connection with this, I should add that the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state where Bales was stationed has been frequently, and fiercely, criticized. Although space does not permit me to go into any depth about the notoriety of this base (details are readily available from such sources as Wikipedia, CNN, and BuzzFlash), let me enumerate some of the complaints raised against it: (1) it has a terrible suicide rate: over 20 troops have taken their lives in the past two years alone, (2) it has cruelly overturned former PTSD diagnoses—purportedly, about 300 of them have erroneously been downgraded to lesser maladies, permitting soldiers to be more easily redeployed, as well as relieving the military of responsibility for their treatment and long-term care, (3) its medical staff is seriously understaffed and grossly unequipped to handle all that's required of them, and (4) soldiers from the base have been tied to many crimes and deviant, aggressive behaviors (both in and outside the U.S.). In short, the base has been described as a model of dysfunctionality. As one pundit concluded: "This was not a rogue soldier. JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem." For all these reasons (and perhaps others) multiple investigations of the base have reportedly been going on since 2010.

Exploring the Psychological/Neurological Underpinnings of Bales' Massacre

I'd like to devote the rest of this piece to describing what, at this point, might reasonably be inferred about the mental and emotional state Robert Bales was in leading up to his alleged shooting rampage. And here I'll freely admit that much of what I'll be discussing is tentative—necessarily speculative. Still, I'd like to offer a preliminary perspective going beyond the multitude of reports available in the media about what happened that horrific night—to provide some coherent explanation for a shooting spree so abhorrent that it would seem more to depict a psychopathic monster than a morally unhinged military man. For as shameful as his unconscionable massacre must be seen, I still think it's essential to try to understand it in as compassionate a manner possible. (I choose the term "unconscionable," by the way, because I see his frightful state of mind as one in which his conscience was probably "missing in action"—i.e., totally unavailable to him.)

Speaking on condition of anonymity, since the investigation is ongoing and Bales has yet to be formally charged, two military officials shared with McClatchy Newspapers that the suspect's medical records had been inspected and "no smoking gun" could be found. And, presumably, there isn't any one thing in his record that could adequately account for what appears to have been a psychotic episode. Given the fact that the military never had to discipline him for misconduct, it's fairly clear that we need to look for what, collectively, happened to him as a veteran soldier that could account for his so-deviant behavior.

Although the file on Bales characterizes his traumatic brain injury in 2010 as mild rather than severe, one Army psychiatrist (quoted by Time online on 3/14) suggests that even relatively mild concussions can cause problems later on. In his words: "What you see often with TBI is a disinhibition. TBI could be responsible if it leaves him predisposed to bipolarity or manic episodes." Another interviewed Army psychiatrist agreed, stating that "a mild TBI certainly can contribute to irritability and impulsivity, even two years later. I don't think it would cause somebody to snap, but I think it could be a contributing factor. . . ." Even though Bales passed a mental health exam at his home base following his vehicle-turnover concussion and was declared fit for duty, such testing is generally regarded as imperfect, even crude.

I, too, think it's an exaggeration to attribute Bales' indiscriminate shootings solely to his TBI—and the personality changes, cognitive and impulse-control problems that can follow in its wake. But it's interesting how those writing about the affliction characterize it in a way that would appear to fit the sergeant almost perfectly. One description employs the phrase "intense and blind fury"—"intensity" suggesting, to me, a kind of deliberate, monomaniacal focus, and "blind" hinting at an inner vacancy lacking any presence of mind, or awareness, of the senselessness of what's being executed. A second, complementary depiction—offered by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay in the Huffington Post—is "icy and flaming rage," a similarly oxymoronic portrayal of a person in such a driven state of ferocity that any fragment of empathy and fellow feeling has been extinguished, and he feels compelled to destroy and kill without the least sensitivity to pain (his own, or anybody else's).

Ultimately, what needs to be understood here is that in such a state one can act in a way that's both crazed and premeditated. And if that sounds contradictory, just consider the behavior of a person whose psyche has deteriorated into a state of paranoid schizophrenia—as did the serial shooter Seung-Hui Cho in the Virginia Tech massacre (on whom I wrote an article back in 2007). In his case, his very personality seemed to undergo total transformation (from meek to murderous) as he methodically (i.e., pre-meditatively) contrived a plan to take out as many people on campus as he could before (after slaying 32 innocents) turning his gun on himself.

Katie Drummond reports that scientists have linked brain trauma to violent episodes. It further cites a military study suggesting the possibility that physical brain damage from a TBI can "prime" the brain for PTSD, as well as another study finding a strong connection between TBIs and aggression. One important point in the latter study is that it isn't so much the severity of the injury that gives rise to aggressiveness as its location. And veteran soldiers with damage to their frontal lobe are most likely to display violent behavior.

The powerful description below might well bare direct relationship to Bales' bizarre deed:

The frontal lobe is a realm quite familiar to scientists studying both TBI and PTSD. It's the part of the brain responsible for higher functions, including impulse control, understanding right from wrong and anticipating the consequence of one's actions. So it's hardly surprising that the frontal lobe has been, time and time again, linked to PTSD, whose sufferers are much more likely to exhibit aggression and violence than their unaffected peers. It's also a brain region particularly vulnerable to the head-rattling damage of a concussive injury. Regardless of that potential connection [between TBI and PTSD], TBI seems implicated in violent behavior on its own. . . . [Moreover] the Pentagon brass and psychiatric experts have long acknowledged that one's risk for developing the syndrome increases with repeat deployments [and Bales, we will recall, was already on his fourth].

In addition to locating Bales somewhere on the continuum of both TBI and PTSD, I'll end this preliminary exploration by briefly emphasizing two other key factors that need to be taken into account in any effort to fully comprehend his psychotic episode:

The first is that at the time of Bales' alleged shooting spree, he was dealing with not one, but multiple stressors. Among them: (1) considerable financial pressures at home (though his wife worked, she'd fallen seriously behind in their house payments), (2) marital stress, linked to the couple's repeated, protracted separations (not to mention the strain his wife was under in having to work and parent by herself two very young children, ages 3 and 4), (3) the fact that the day before the Afghanistan massacre Bales was standing next to an Army friend when he witnessed his leg's being severed by an IED, (4) the circumstance that he'd recently been denied a promotion, which he badly wanted and thought he deserved, (5) His substantial anger (likely unresolved and lurking just beneath the surface) in being promised he wouldn't be asked to do additional tours and then abruptly informed otherwise, and (6) other stressors yet to be identified.

Doubtless, all of us have our breaking point. Given Balles' psychiatric and neuropsychiatric problems with TBI and PTSD, these additional stressors, it might have been predicted, could easily have put him at greatly increased risk for "losing it." Additionally, if (as military officials claim) he'd been drinking alcohol with two fellow soldiers earlier that fateful night—a clear violation of Army rules in combat zones and a suggestion of his beginning, behaviorally, to act out his frustrations—his ability to resist strong negative impulses inside him would have been even further compromised. Consider in this context the words of Michael Yon, writing for the New York Daily News: "Even our most disciplined troops—not the few problem troops—have lost all idealism. They have not lost heart for the fight. Mostly, they just don't care. They fight because they are ordered to fight, but they have eyes wide open. . . ."

And all these contingencies are without my bringing in a second determining factor: namely, Bales' (just uncovered) history of "losing it" as a civilian. On at least two separate occasions (both of which occurred after he'd joined the Army), he'd shown—however "out of character"—poor impulse control in reaction to upsets and frustrations. And each incident involves a brush with the law, something that his home base should have been aware of and acted upon. Although typically his neighbors and friends (going all the way back to childhood) portray him as "mild-mannered, good-natured, warm, and even a "local hero," and his former platoon leader extols him as "an outstanding of the best guys I ever worked with," these incidents raise yet more doubts about how fit he was mentally to be redeployed to Afghanistan.

Despite the blurriness of the details surrounding each of these troubling events, this much is known. In 2002 (the year after Bales enlisted), public records show that he was charged with criminal assault on his at-the-time girlfriend. He pleaded not guilty, completed 20 hours of anger management counseling, complied with a no-contact order, and the case was later dismissed.

A second charge, in 2008, for hit and run was also dismissed, though the details here seem even murkier. In this incident (which occurred prior to his rollover accident in Iraq) he was spotted shortly after midnight—in uniform, with a shaved head and bleeding—fleeing into the woods from a rollover accident with his car, which involved damage to a parked car nearby. When Bales was later questioned about the accident, he claimed he'd fallen asleep behind the wheel, for which he received a deferred 12-month sentence. Again, the charges against him were eventually dropped.

So where, finally, do all these facts and associated conjectures leave us? Much more evidence may still emerge on this case that could influence our conclusions, legal and otherwise, on his conduct that calamitous night. Conduct for which Bales—unless his brain has altogether lost the capacity for it—will forever experience shame and remorse.

But in the end, I can only hope that whatever "justice" is meted out for his alleged massacre of innocents will be scrupulously tempered with empathy, compassion, and mercy.

NOTE: If you found this psychological approach to the Afghan tragedy in some way illuminating—and believe others might as well— please consider passing it on.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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