Could Bales have been stopped? Answers, please

When Staff Sgt. Robert Bales pleaded guilty in June to massacring 16 Afghan villagers, he offered the public no explanation for the butchery.

The Army apparently isn’t big on explanations, either.

Last week, the Defense Department tersely denied The News Tribune’s attempt to obtain a report on the “command climate” at the Special Forces outpost from which Bales carried out his mass murders. The report — ordered by the Army many months ago — would detail the all-important context of the March 2012 killings.

It would be nice to think that Bales’ explosion was utterly inexplicable and unconnected to any command lapses at the little Belambay base in Kandahar Province.

But there’s at least one connection. The Army has already acknowledged that liquor — forbidden in a combat zone — had been flowing freely in the early morning of March 11, when Bales went berserk. He’d had been drinking Jack Daniels; he’d also been using anabolic steroids at some point prior to the atrocities.

The alcohol alone suggests lax discipline.

Seeking to learn more, The News Tribune and KUOW radio in August filed a freedom-of-information request for the report, which presumably details the Army’s oversight of Belambay. Justice would not be compromised by the report’s release. The criminal case is over, and Bales is serving his life sentence.

Now, more than five months after the request was made, the Pentagon has officially refused to share a word of its assessment of the command. Its letter of denial cryptically invokes such statutory terms as “military plans, operations, or weapons systems”; “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums”; “personal privacy interests”; “expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings”; and “deprive a person of a right to a fair trial.”

If the Defense Department can force document-seekers to run a gantlet as vague and sweeping as that, what request couldn’t it deny at its own whim?

Since the Pentagon isn’t providing any answers, we’ll ask some more questions:

What security measures were in place at Belambay? How could Bales leave the base twice, to commit two massacres, without being stopped or even missed?

Bales — not a Special Forces soldier — was detached from his normal unit and separated from his first sergeant and other regular superiors. He’d begun acting erratically and lashing out angrily weeks before the killing. Who missed those signs of trouble? Who was watching the non-Special Forces troops at the base?

How widespread was the use of alcohol and drugs among the U.S. soldiers in the area? How about the rest of Afghanistan? Bales is the textbook example of why Army regulations forbid the combination of alcohol, combat stress and live ammunition.

Did Belambay suffer from some uncommonly pathological military subculture? Or were its problems typical of American bases in Afghanistan?

Most important: What has to change?

Bales has been held to account to the extent possible in an earthly court. Now the Army owes the American public an accounting of its own part in the catastrophe. Maybe Bales’ commanders were derelict, or maybe he was a cunning, rage-filled killer who couldn’t have been stopped by any precaution. Either way, America deserves to be told.