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The conversation at the Carolina Ale House in Fayetteville is usually dominated at this time of year by the "March Madness" college basketball tournament, but this week the sport had to compete with news about Sergeant Robert Bales and a massacre in Afghanistan.
Just as the mainly military patrons were starting to watch the game on Thursday night, they began to discover that the American soldier was to face 17 separate charges of murder, after he allegedly slaughtered the members of an Afghan village near his base two weeks ago, including nine children.
"It is still unbelievable what he did," said David Bond, an army veteran who was visiting Fayetteville, the small North Carolina city dominated by the huge Fort Bragg military base. "It is like my buddy was saying," motioning towards a message he had just received on his phone. "This was supposed to be the good war."
Coming at a time when the war appears to be floundering on many fronts, the alleged rampage in southern Afghanistan has set off a powerful set of reactions - from Afghan outrage to a growing number of American politicians wanting to pull-out. But military communities such as Fayetteville have their own form of indignation, the resentment that comes from seeing the personal sacrifices of a decade-long war called into question.
If nothing else, the tale of Sgt Bales has proved captivating. The 38-year-old father of two may have signed up for the military shortly after 9/11, but in the week since his name was made public, America has come to see a person who represents so many of the ways in which the country has gone awry in recent years.
The Bales family, it turns out, had been caught up in the property market crash. Just days before the massacre, his wife tried to put their house near Tacoma, Washington up for sale for 20 per cent less than they had paid for it. Another property they owned in a nearby town was near-derelict, with used car parts left out front.
Before enlisting, Sgt Bales had a chequered career in finance. He worked for several small penny-stock brokerages which were caught up in allegations of market manipulation. After co-founding his own firm, he was ruled by an arbitration panel in Ohio to have defrauded a retired couple and ordered to repay USD1.5m - money they never received.
Joining the army was not just about striking back against al-Qaeda, it was also a way of running from reality.
As the scale of his alleged crimes has started to sink in, there has been plenty of discussion about possible circumstances that would lead him to "snap". Senator Patty Murray of Washington has raised questions about the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at Fort Lewis-McChord, Sgt Bale's home military base.
His three tours of duty in Iraq before going to Afghanistan have also focused attention on the strains that more than a decade of war have placed on the serving military and their families. Since 2001, 2.2m members of the American military have been deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Yet curiously it is in military communities such as Fayetteville where these rationalisations get short shrift. It is a matter of professional pride among many soldiers to push back against the idea that war reduces them to broken shells.
Sitting in his wheelchair outside the town's veterans hospital, a five-storey building that is one of the biggest in Fayetteville, one soldier who asked not to be named said: "There can never be any excuse for that."
When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama encouraged the notion of Afghanistan as the "good war" and that idea has retained some currency in the military. While service in Iraq was coloured by the deceptions and blunders that surrounded the war, Afghanistan remains the place from which the 9/11 attacks were launched.
Yet as the war has ground on and commanders have struggled to define its objectives, the Afghan conflict has also lost much of its allure - a process that has accelerated in the last fortnight.
"As a chaplain, I have wondered about possible PTSD, but around here there is no sympathy for him [Sgt Bales] at all, just a feeling that he has done a terrible, terrible thing," says Larry McCarty, pastor at the First Baptist church in Spring Lake, on the edge of Fort Bragg.
Mr McCarty was a Southern Baptist pastor in Florida and an Army reservist when he was called up after 9/11. He spent the next nine years either at Fort Bragg or in Iraq, before moving recently to the Spring Lake church. In his last two years with the army, he conducted 75 military funerals.
"This is a resilient, patriotic community," he says of his largely military congregation. "But it has been a very, very long war and many people are tired and weary."