U.S. officials said they were shocked after an American soldier allegedly gunned down 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month. But attacks on innocent civilians, including women and children, are not without precedent during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The big question now: Is the military’s justice system equipped to determine whether the service member, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, is guilty and dole out a fitting punishment? If the drawn-out investigations and trials concerning past allegations of offenses by American troops are any indication, the forthcoming probe and disciplinary process may be nowhere near as harsh as the rhetoric coming from Defense and Obama administration officials condemning the event itself.
National Journal takes a look at some of the incidents over the last decade in which U.S. personnel have been accused of crimes during wartime.
Shooting Spree. (AFGHANISTAN, March 2012)
The Incident: An Army staff sergeant stationed in Kandahar province left his base on Sunday, March 11, and allegedly started shooting Afghan civilians in houses nearby. Seventeen civilians died -- nine of them children -- and several others were wounded.
The Fallout: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quickly pledged that any perpetrator of the attack will be held "fully accountable under the law." The suspect in custody, lated identified as Robert Bales will be charged Friday with 17 counts of homicide. The Associated Press reports Bales will also be charged with six counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault. Bales, 38, was attached to a unit based at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and had been participating in a village-stabilization operation in Afghanistan. He is married with two children, and had served three tours of duty in Iraq. In December, the sergeant deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in his 11-year Army tenure.
President Obama said after the shooting he supports the military's plan to investigate the matter and hold the perpetrator accountable. “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan," Obama said.
While Panetta has said the death penalty could be possible if he's convicted, the government may have a hard time proving its case. Bales's lawyers have said they'll attack the evidence against him, collected in a combat zone thousands of miles away. They are also likely to argue Bales had diminished mental capacity after combat injuries, including losing part of his foot and sustaining traumatic brain injury after a vehicle rolled over during a tour in Iraq. His lawyers have also indicated the possibility of Bales's mental trauma; the alleged shooting spree was days after Bales saw the aftermath of a bombing that blew off a fellow soldier's leg.
Weeks after the alleged shootings, Afghan war commander Gen. John Allen told Congress the Army will launch a separate investigation into the command and control process within Bales's unit - and how and why the suspect was assigned to the stability mission in the first place.
Video of Urinating Marines. (AFGHANISTAN, January 2012)
The Incident: A viral video depicting U.S. Marines joking as they urinated on blood-soaked Taliban corpses shocked the international community. If proven, the act of desecrating corpses would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Fallout: Less than a day after the video began circulating over the Internet, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denounced the footage as “utterly deplorable” and promised to hold the troops accountable “to the fullest extent.” Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he’s asked that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service gather a team of their “very best agents” to conduct a thorough investigation of the filmed event – and that he had assigned a Marine general to conduct a parallel probe.
‘Kill Team.’ (AFGHANISTAN, 2010)
The Incident: Twelve American soldiers from a Stryker infantry brigade based in Kandahar province were accused of being part of a secret "kill team" that randomly blew up and shot Afghan civilians for sport — and even collected fingers as trophies and posed for a photo with a corpse. The attacks, which took place between January and May 2010 in Kandahar, were headed by a staff sergeant who reportedly bragged about getting away with abuse while deployed in Iraq.
Evidence of the killings surfaced in May 2010 when the army began investigating an assault on a soldier who said some of his fellow troops smoked hashish they stole from civilians. After an ensuing investigation uncovered evidence of the atrocities, five soldiers were accused of murdering three Afghan noncombatants and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder. Seven were accused of covering up the killings and assaulting the recruit who exposed the murders, according to The Guardian. Among the wide-ranging charges against the group: Keeping victims’ body parts, such as a skull and fingers, as trophies; and taking and possessing photographs of dead bodies.