JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the enigmatic figure at the center of the worst U.S. war crime in recent memory, admitted for the first time Wednesday deliberately killing 16 Afghan civilians last year, most of them women and children.
He took the oath in a military court, swore to tell the truth, and conceded in crisp "yes sirs" and "no sirs" every major charge against him — that he shot some victims, and shot and burned others, and did so with complete awareness that he was acting on his own, without compunction or mercy or orders by a superior Army officer. The guilty plea removes the possibility of the death penalty in the case.
But the curtain of enigma about the man himself, and his descent into darkness and murder on the night of the killings in March 2012, remained firmly in place. Even Bales himself, finally pressed by the presiding judge, Col. Jeffery Nance, to explain more deeply what happened, seemed baffled.
"What was your reason for killing them?" Nance finally asked.
Bales, 39, said he had asked himself the same question "a million times."
"There's not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did," he said.
The murders, in two poor villages in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, had global repercussions. U.S.-Afghan relations shuddered as villages in the area erupted in protest. Critics of America's decade of conflict in the region since the 9/11 terrorist attacks seized on the stresses experienced in the war by soldiers like Bales, who was on his fourth overseas deployment in 10 years.
Bales still faces a sentencing trial, scheduled for August, to determine whether he will receive life in prison with or without parole.
At that time, Bales and his lawyers could present evidence of extenuating or mitigating circumstances, and Bales would have an opportunity to testify, the judge said.