'Hajji' Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

The media is struggling to understand who Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is, and why he allegedly shot 16 Afghan civilians. However, the details being held up as insights into a troubled mind are just descriptions of Army life.

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The media is struggling to understand who Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is, and why he allegedly shot 16 Afghan civilians, but since he hasn't given any interviews, the only way to do this is comb through the digital fragments he's left behind over the last few years. However, the details being held up as insights into a troubled mind are just descriptions of Army life. If every soldier who did what Bale did -- used bad words to talk about Iraqis and Afghans, had marital problems -- we'd have a million war criminals.

For instance, on Monday The Wall Street Journal unearthed an April 2010 Facebook chat between Bales and a childhood friend while Bales was in Iraq. When asked how the deployment was going, Bales said, "Overseas is boring this trip, pretty dumb. Giving money to Hagi instead of bullets don't seem right." The Journal implies that the use of "hagi" -- actually spelled hajji, as in one who's made the Haj -- indicates an underlying lack of respect for Iraqis, and explains that "the attitude expressed seemed to clash sharply with sentiments [Bales] has voiced publicly" that he liked helping the Iraqi people. But that's unfair. Soldiers use the term "hajji" the way junior high boys use the term "gay" -- too much, sure, and it's worth telling them to stop, but it doesn't indicate they're contemplating a hate crime. More important, the sentiment Bales expressed is even more banal. "Paying people not to kill us" is the formulation that I've heard literally dozens of veterans use to refer to what the rest of the country calls the "Sunni Awakening," when Sunni Iraqis turned against Al Qaeda during the surge. The official government line is that the Sunnis rejected terrorism and began policing their own communities; the U.S. gave these "Sons of Iraq" money and P.T. belts, the reflective neon strip soldiers wear while working out. But from soldiers' point of view, the government was paying off the same people who had been attacking them. The sentiment is so ubiquitous it's illustrated for laughs in this web comic, Terminal Lance:
Military officials have begun portraying Bales as man troubled by financial struggles, and this weekend, The Washington Post furthered that perception. "Years of overseas duty on a sergeant’s salary had squeezed the family’s resources to the breaking point, and now Bales’s wooded property was in disrepair and more than $50,000 underwater," The Post said. The thing is, it's when soldiers are in combat that the money really rolls in. Soldiers get extra money -- combat pay and separation pay -- plus their salaries aren't taxed, and the soldier has zero expenses -- food, housing, clothing are all taken care of. All he has to pay for are things like haircuts, energy drinks, and the pirated DVDs the locals sell on base, which are referred to, by the way, as "hajji copies." If Bales' family was struggling financially, it's not because of repeated deployments. Soldiers don't make a lot of money, but they don't make less overseas.
The military also argues that Bales had marital problems, which the military likes to blame when soldiers commit crimes or suicide. The New York Times' Matt Flegenheimer did a close reading of the blog kept by Bales' wife, Kari, looking at the struggles in their marriage. But Kari blogs about missing her husband and wanting to have more control over where she lived -- some of the most common complaints of Army wives. It's like a blogger complaining about self-promoters on Twitter, or a college professor complaining about idiot undergrads. Kari Bales' posts are not particularly poignant way ("I only want the days to go by fast when it comes to Bob coming back home," read one entry) and you can find literally hundreds of other blogs that say the exact same thing. Her blog is only interesting if it's alien.
For the last decade, conservatives have argued that the femme-y liberal media doesn't know anything about the military, and used that as a way to try to bully reporters out of tough coverage of the Pentagon. That makes it especially annoying when stories like this provide some evidence the cliché is true. The Seattle Times tried to explain the importance of Bales rank by writing, "He was eventually promoted to staff sergeant, a job one Defense Department publication describes as the 'backbone of the Army.'" This is how the Army refers to all noncommissioned officers -- higher-ranking enlisted soldiers. It is boilerplate that anyone who's read a employee handbook should be familiar with ("Your job, every job, is essential to fulfilling our mission everyday"). Quoting H.R. bromides has all the meaning of referring to Delta's old corporate slogan, "We love to fly and it shows," if a flight attendant hijacked a Delta flight. It has no meaning.
The search for Bales' motivations hasn't uncovered any profound psychological truths about this one man. It's offered a general picture of military life, but portrayed it as an environment that created a monster.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.