Male Bonding—Military Massacres By The Book

by Kathleen Barry 

For two weeks after the March 11, 2012 Afghan massacre, its 17 dead victims and several wounded were anonymous to the world. Americans read daily about their alleged killer, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, his multiple deployments, his wife's worries, her pregnancies—even in the few days before we learned his name. 

At the end of March, Afghan born Australian journalist Yalda Hakim found her way to the villages where the massacres took place. The Afghan Army working with the U.S. military was reluctant to let her in. She prevailed.

Then, to speak to the survivors, she had to appeal to  President Hamid Karzai,  after the U.S. military refused her permission.  And finally, although her report is not aired on major U.S. media, we see the surviving children speak of their fathers and mothers being shot in front of them, villagers telling of a crying baby getting a bullet to the head, an elderly grandmother being shot down when she opened the door. 

All speak of many American soldiers, from 15 to 20 according to the initial Afghan parliamentary investigation report shortly after the massacres. President Obama said "it appeared you had a lone gunman who acted on his own," not wanting it compared to the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war.

In one of the houses, we see rooms dotted with bullet holes and splattered blood. We see the now the empty village, its surviving inhabitants now refugees someplace else in Afghanistan. Step by step we can reconstruct those victims experiences that night bringing them out of anonymity, engaging our empathy.

Even with this information that allows us to begin to feel for Afghans and their losses, in the United States concern for Robert Bales's mental health looms larger. Daily, extensive reports connect us to his subjectivity in a way that continues to render the victims invisible, denying us empathy for those nine children, dead execution-style, each with one bullet in the head.

Why the anonymity of those victims?  Why is the media almost uniquely focused on Bales's multiple deployments?  Why the insistence on Bales as the lone killer in the face of Yalda Hamkin's report and the initial Afghan investigation? Because these were revenge killings, a by-the-book military trained response of male bonding.

One of the buddies at the base, a particular friend of Robert Bales, lost his leg when a roadside bomb exploded a few days before, according to both Afghan military accounts and that of Bales's lawyer.  As I have argued in Unmaking War, Remaking Men, male bonding (expected of women in the military as well) is drilled into new recruits during training at they same time they are learning to kill without remorse, killing their own souls. It is a clever military technique to invoke shame in order to prevent soldiers from deserting or refusing to fight. In combat, if your buddy is hurt or killed, it is because you did not protect him. Even if there was nothing you could have done, your manhood is violated, your soldier's honor is stained. What else is there to do but to avenge his death or the attack against him?  Military male bonding knows no boundaries. Since the massacre of Afghans, U.S. soldiers are being targeted in revenge for the massacre of 17. War perpetuates itself.

For decades feminists have been exposing male bonding when guys join together for a gang rape and then cover for each other, when men close women out of decision-making in firms or hang together to pass them over in promotion, when policemen ignore wife beatings. When male bonding engages with racism, we see how police officers and departments cover for each other.  The killing of African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch captain, has gone unchallenged and without an arrest since February. Although Trayvon Martin was unarmed, the Sanford Police Department accepted George Zimmerman's explanation that he shot in self-defense.

What will happen to Robert Bales or "our Bobby" as the New York Times reported friends described him? Will there be a repeat of the outcome of the 2005 Haditha massacre? When Frank Wuterich saw his buddy blown to smithereens in the Humvee in front of him, he took command and went into action. In a short time 24 Iraqis, mostly women and children, were dead. The military cover-up went high up the chain of command. But quietly over the years the charges against eight of the soldiers were dropped. In mid 2011 Wuterich was convicted of "dereliction of duty" and sentenced to serve no time in jail.

Bales like Wuterich responded to an attack on his buddy just as many men enlisted right after the 9/11/ 2001 attack on the United States to avenge those American lives taken that day. If we can predict from the Haditha case, most Americans will have forgotten about the latest Afghan massacre by the time it comes to court. Forgetting is how Americans collude with their country's war crimes, their soldiers' crimes against humanity even as they spill over onto our own city streets. The African American community and those committed to anti-racism will not rest until there is justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  But for most Americans, war, if regrettable, is over there someplace else. We cannot afford to turn away. Until male bonding is exposed, disgraced, and disrupted we will be drawn into colluding with its crimes or chiming in with such excuses as multiple deployments.

The most fundamental defense of violent masculinity is that men must be aggressive and violent to protect women and children upon whom they turn their violence.  Women and children, including teenagers like Trayvon Martin, will always be their most likely victims. There is another way, the one chosen by men who refuse to kill in war, who suffer humiliation and beatings for "not being a man" but who, in resisting war and killing, make it possible for us to expect that of all men.

this article originally appeared on the site of the Women's Media Center