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Expert: Bales Massacre Won’t Go Down In History Like My Lai

High Desert Warrior
High Desert Warrior. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

The case of Sgt. Robert Bales – sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole - will be remembered in the villages of southern Afghanistan.

But according to a military justice expert at Yale Law School, this war crime won’t go down in the history books as others - like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam - have.

Eugene Fidell teaches the My Lai massacre in his military justice class at Yale Law. In March of 1968, a rogue company of soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed civilians – including women and children.

“I think the My Lai massacre came in a way to be an iconic emblem of the Vietnam War," Fidell explains. "I don’t actually seeing that in the case of Sgt. Bales.”

Bales acted alone when he left his Army outpost one night in March of last year. Over the course of a few hours he terrorized and murdered families in two nearby villages – shooting, and in some cases burning, the bodies of mostly women and children. In all 16 unarmed civilians were killed.

But Fidell says it’s hard to derive a larger military justice lesson from this tragedy. Instead, he says, it’s a case that leaves more questions than answers – especially about the impact of multiple deployments to war zones.

Still, Fidell says the sentence is not a surprise.

“What that tells me is that the members of that court martial have delivered a severe condemnation and concluded that this is a person who should not again be permitted to live in the free world.”

However, Fidell says the sentence is not absolutely final yet. The jury’s decision will now be reviewed by a military commander who has the power to adjust the sentence. There will also be an automatic review of the case by a military appeals court.

Bales was on his fourth combat deployment at the time of his crimes.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."