03/22/2012 09:33 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

The Afghanistan Killings: Time for Self-Reflection

In the predawn hours of March 12, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly left his military outpost in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, entered a village, went door to door seeking unlocked homes, and shot or stabbed to death 16 sleeping people, burning some of the bodies. All were non-combatants and nine were children, the youngest two years old, the oldest 14.

Bales, who enlisted following 9/11, has been deployed to Iraq three times since 2003, for a total of 39 months, and had been in Afghanistan since December. Following the shooting there has been an avalanche of speculation about whether Bales's multiple tours of duty, during which he doubtless witnessed terrible things (that happened to Afghans, Iraqis, and his comrades), suffered a traumatic brain injury, and lost part of one foot, created stress so severe that he simply snapped on March 12. As if on cue, his lawyer has pledged to defend Bales by putting the war on trial.

Two things must be said up front. What happened that night is above all an irreparable loss for the families of the slain, even though the focus here has quickly shifted to Bales. We should consider how any of us would feel if 16 family members were killed in their beds. The fortitude and calm with which Afghans have reacted is striking, and it won't do to say, well, the Taliban are worse, or that Afghan soldiers have killed a larger number of American trainers. Is that our standard? Second, combat stress cannot excuse, though it may help explain, atrocities. Thousands of soldiers have witnessed dreadful things in battle -- and some have done them -- but they have not then gone on lethal rampages.

It's easy to express outrage and sadness over the Panjwai killings and to debate their cause. What's harder to do, but what we should do, is to reflect on ourselves in the light of what occurred. We have just concluded a nine-year war in Iraq that consumed the lives of 4,486 American soldiers and of many more Iraqis and have passed the tenth year of another in Afghanistan in which 1,193 American troops and, again, many more Afghans, have perished. Then there are the wounded and psychologically traumatized troops, whose plight gets all too little attention. Yet what has been demanded of us here at home? Very little, even though President George W. Bush insisted that the Iraq war was essential to protect the United States (never mind that no weapons of mass destruction or proof of Saddam's complicity in the 9/11 attack, the reasons given for the war, were found) and President Obama, a critic of Bush's Iraq campaign, has always insisted that the Afghan war is, by contrast, just and necessary -- the good war.

If these wars were so important, our leaders should have asked us to make commensurate sacrifices. But they've not. Taxes have not been raised to finance two wars that have cost over $3 trillion -- and counting; they've been funded by running up deficits and borrowing from China. Politicians love to laud Americans' patriotism but they seem too timid to test it given their exquisite attention to polls and getting reelected.

Our leaders trumpet the necessity of reducing America's reliance on "foreign oil," and not a few repeat the canard that we can drill out way out of dependence. Yet few if any have the courage to call for a gas tax that will reduce consumption and to remind us that Canadians, Europeans and Japanese, for example, pay much more per gallon. This, too, seems too much to demand of an infantilized citizenry.

If the wars we fight don't evoke much protest it's because those who haven't had to fight them haven't felt the pinch, certainly not those well-off enough not to have to depend on essential services that have been cut to curb deficits. And because we have an all-volunteer force, most families don't have to worry about their kids being drafted and dispatched to deadly places. Were a draft in place Americans would not be so detached from the wars. (Consider the role of the draft in turning the public against the Vietnam War.)

As things stand, a thin stratum of society has faced the hazards of war. Our leaders don't even favor television coverage of the steady stream of bodies brought home for burial. Best not to test our endurance with visceral, and visual, reminders of war's human costs. Lists of soldiers killed in battle are published periodically in the papers, and they seem to contain a disproportionate number of minorities and people from small towns and rural areas, particularly in infantry units, which suffer the largest losses. Middle class Americans, to say nothing of the more privileged, have been largely insulated from the wars.

To show solidarity with the troops we sport "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers and tie yellow ribbons around trees. There's nothing wrong with that, but these are easy gestures that make us feel good without imposing any cost, in any sense of the word.

So how about if our leaders declare that any wars that they decree vital to national security must be paid for with tax revenues rather than deficits? And, while now is not a good time for a gas tax given the feeble economic recovery, if reducing oil imports is in fact worthwhile -- and it is, for strategic and environmental reasons -- why not institute it when the economy has recovered and provide rebates to people living on the margins so that they are shielded from the new burden?

These two measures and a draft would make war a real thing as opposed to an abstraction that does not touch most of us and to which we are therefore attentive only intermittently. We're less likely to wage needless wars: they will be democratized and so there will be less enthusiasm for them -- on the part of leaders and the led. The Panjwaii massacre offers an opportunity to think about this.