Bowe Bergdahl and the Moral Rot of American Exceptionalism
“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american (sic). The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”
From “America’s Last Prisoner of War”, by Michael Hastings. Rolling Stone, June 7, 2012
Nothing exposes the decadence of American militarism and the ideology of American exceptionalism better than the explosion of emotion sweeping the internet, Congress and the news media over the prisoner exchange of Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban. He is being vilified as a deserter and personally responsible for the deaths of fellow soldiers missioned to find him. The American right-wing located in the Republican party, some liberals like Chris Matthews and Dianne Feinstein and some of his fellow soldiers are all calling for his head in a display of vengeful nastiness bordering on psychotic. Bergdahl’s motivations for walking away from the bizarre U.S. counterinsurgency expedition in Afghanistan, a “dirty war” seemingly without purpose or end, are being lost in the fog of infantile political temper tantrums.
Bergdahl was according to an in-depth Rolling Stone article in 2012 by the late Michael Hastings, an exceptionally competent and motivated soldier during training, serious about preparing himself for combat. So serious and competent, that his fellow soldiers kidded him about being too gung-ho. He was moved in part by what he had read or viewed of reports of atrocities against civilians by the Taliban and other jihadist groups in other countries. His was an honest and heartfelt desire to “serve and protect” the poor and destitute in conflict zones. He was a highly-motivated foot soldier for “humanitarian imperialism”, the perfect youthful idealist falling for the good-vs-evil fairy tale of American exceptionalism.
Bergdahl’s disillusionment started as soon as he joined the U.S. Army, and found that his unit was incompetent to the point of being dysfunctional. The leadership problems and motivation issues never were really resolved in training, and only intensified after deployment to Paktia Province, one of the more volatile and dangerous areas in Afghanistan. He describes an 8-hour mission in an email home to his parents which turned into an extreme military FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), where he and his unit spent multiple days stranded in enemy territory due to what in his view was leadership and bureaucratic incompetence. In a supreme irony, this is the same province in which Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal football player who joined the Army Rangers out of idealistic and self-sacrificing patriotism, was killed by members of his own unit in a notorious “friendly-fire” incident. That was the result of grossly negligent decision-making on the part of his chain-of-command which committed the cardinal sin of splitting up his unit while similarly stranded, as reported in Counterpunch.
From the Hastings article, Bergdahl’s views seem to go beyond the usual soldierly complaints into an angry indictment of careerism and “covering-your-ass” incompetence:
“Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and ‘one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.’ His battalion commander was a ‘conceited old fool.’ The military system itself was broken: ‘In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do whatever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.’ The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: ‘The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.’”
Bergdahl’s vehemently critical attitude toward his chain-of-command is familiar to many enlisted soldiers who served in the Vietnam War. Officers, especially field-grade, were viewed with deserved contempt, with some exceptions, as corrupt and incompetent careerists who avoided personal risk. The assault on Hill 937, which came to be known as “Hamburger Hill” is one of the more notorious incidents, where soldiers were gratuitously sacrificed by officers in the rear. In what came to be called in the black humor of the soldier “ticket punching”, these kinds of officers were scorned for their career-building tours in Vietnam only to get the necessary medals for upward advancement.
It isn’t clear from Bergdahl’s personal history in the Rolling Stone article whether he joined the Army due to economic difficulties, the “poverty draft” as it’s called. It may have played a role. His parents were certainly not wealthy or privileged, earning an annual income of only $7000 one year according to Hastings.
He did have other personal motivations for wanting to become a soldier, revealing some of the more telling features of militarized American culture, where ignorance of history and the world outside, especially among youth, even those with strong ethical senses, yields startling contradictions. He at one point unsuccessfully tried to join the French Foreign Legion as a mercenary, probably unaware or willfully ignorant of its savage and ruthless record in French imperial history. That ignorance and historic amnesia is coupled with a desire to express one’s youthful need for excitement and adventure by joining the military, and in essence acquiring that excitement by deploying across the planet to combat zones. In the society of the spectacle, where young Americans are immersed in an entertainment culture, the world becomes a theme park or giant (real) video contest, where they can overcome their boredom in a spiritually dead consumerism by testing themselves in what they view as heroic combat in other people’s countries, riding to their rescue. The “others” in those countries in essence become two-dimensional cutouts or foils for a live-action videogame with real risks and danger and excitement. The suffering resulting from American military occupation is not part of the consciousness, and rarely is noticed by soldiers immersed in the demands of survival against lethal dangers. It is instead often replaced with resentment and hatred for the ungrateful locals who either support the insurgents or are caught between them and American forces.
But this isn’t always so, for some don’t lose their moral compass and independent intellect, even in the stifling culture of the military, where mental activity is supposed to be totally directed at focused attention on the mission. Questioning that mission is heresy. As the saying goes in the military, “Those things are ‘way above my pay grade”. Bergdahl was one of those exceptions, a soldier who observed his situation with a critical eye, spent down time reading, and was prone to measuring the stated mission of the U.S. occupation and counterinsurgency, “winning hearts and minds” against actual behavior of his fellow soldiers. It was this independence and strong moral sense that would get him into trouble and set off a political firestorm.
While Bergdahl was motivated initially in part by the desire for adventure, and to escape the confines of small-town Hailey, Idaho and the isolating regime of family life in a religious household, he brought his apparently strong ethical upbringing into the military. He was home-schooled by strict sort of hippie Christian fundamentalist parents who lived mostly off-the-grid, and he got a strong education in ethics and morality, studying Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Ironically considering the left-right political paradigm in America, where Christian fundamentalism is viewed as a monolithic ideological construct on the right of the spectrum, the hatred and vitriol directed at him comes mostly (but not exclusively) from the right while his moral and ethical development took place in what could be argued was a Christian fundamentalist home.
In a letter his father wrote, from the Rolling Stone article, he advised his son:
“‘Dear Bowe,’ he wrote. ‘In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.’ He signed it simply ‘dad.’”
There’s another name for the neutral and dispassionate word “counterinsurgency”, or, in our western culture in love with acronyms, “COIN”. It’s “dirty war”, which is a more accurate label for the bitter, ruthless struggle between occupiers and occupied. By now, even with the historic amnesia of the “putting Vietnam behind us” mantra of the national storytellers, the nature of COIN remains the same. Occupation forces are obliged to ferret out insurgents “by whatever means necessary”, tantamount to terror, which includes nocturnal home invasions, “enhanced interrogation” (a.k.a. modernized torture), drone strikes on village compounds, occasionally weddings and funerals (by mistake of course – we never know for sure), and the ruthless practice of sometimes firing missiles into crowds of what we would call “first responders”, the Afghani equivalent of cops, firefighters and ambulances. Insurgents of course respond with ambush and mine warfare (IED’s) against occupation forces and their own brand of terror directed against collaborators.
Not surprisingly, many occupation soldiers, carrying in their heads the bright, shining lie of American benevolence and purity (and by extension their own), bedeviled by constant pressure from an unseen enemy and a civilian population unable or unwilling to cooperate, soon develop very negative attitudes toward those whom they thought they were “saving”. Atrocity stories about American soldiers murdering women and children, desecrating corpses and so forth start percolating into the national consciousness, like skunks at a garden party. Bergdahl hinted at this sinister attitude starting to develop in his own unit in Hasting’s article:
“In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. ‘I am sorry for everything here,’ Bowe told his parents. ‘These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.’ He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. ‘We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.’
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. ‘I am sorry for everything,’ he wrote. ‘The horror that is america is disgusting.’”
This remarkable statement comes from a formerly highly-disciplined soldier, trained to carry a SAW (squad automatic weapon) into combat, by all accounts what the national mythology reveres, a poster-boy for the new secular religion of American exceptionalism . It is also what no doubt has driven its true believers and priests into enraged apoplexy, including some in his own unit and possibly many veterans. The rage has turned into an avalanche of hate on social media, intimidating parade organizers in his hometown into cancelling his homecoming.
Yet disaffection in the ranks is not new with Bergdahl. The tragic friendly-fire death of one Pat Tillman, who America fell in love with after he sacrificed a lucrative National Football League career to join the Army Rangers after 9-11, gives us a glimpse into this dissonance. In March 2003 he told his buddy Spc. Russell Baer while serving in Iraq, in a quote which went viral over the internet, “You know, this war is so fucking illegal.” His accidental death in Afghanistan in a botched mission at the hands of his fellow soldiers was assiduously covered up by the military and Bush administration, until through the struggle for truth by his own family it could no longer be. His journal which he kept disappeared.
The discord within the military and veteran community finally coalesced organizationally into resistance through the formation of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) in July 2004 at the annual convention of Veterans for Peace in Boston. IVAW opened its doors to American veterans of the occupation of Afghanistan in 2009. The public disclosure of dissent by veterans, and especially active-duty members, is highly sensitive in this militarized culture and in certain high-profile cases like Bergdahl’s is immediately attacked. The true believers in American mythology, many veterans who have experienced much pain and loss as a result of their military service, are unable to tolerate this kind of dissent, for it raises agonizing questions, “Was it all in vain? Was I used for ulterior motives by my own government?” and lash out at dissenters. They are rounded up by clever political operatives and used to build campaigns of intimidation. This is what is happening now as the established political parties and their corporate media allies attempt to quash dissent.
What must be alarming to those depending on a reliable military for power projection in the neoliberal project of policing the world, is the specter of resistance in the military. During the invasion and occupation of Vietnam an intense, wide and deep GI resistance movement developed which ultimately played a crucial role in bringing the war to an end. This resistance in the military is brilliantly described in David Cortright’s “Soldiers in Revolt”, but has been mostly erased from national memory in the selective amnesia referred to as “putting Vietnam behind us.”
One of the main reasons for the initiation of the all-volunteer military after the debacle in Vietnam was to eliminate the problem of draftees in the military and general draft resistance. It was thought that most of the GI resistance was within the ranks of disgruntled draftees, but this assumption, which has become unquestioned, is declared by Cortwright to be completely untrue. He says, referring to those days:
“Of course, the end of conscription did not halt the GI resistance movement. The assumption that the U.S. military would be free of dissension, that volunteers would be more docile and acquiescent than draftees, proved wrong. In fact, the GI movement had always been primarily a movement of enlistees, and filling the ranks with volunteers thus actually increased the likelihood of internal dissent.”
The political class knows the importance keeping control of the military and thus the story coming out of occupations. All the soldiers in the current occupations are enlisted. Bergdahl’s anguish and desperate escape, especially his reasons, will be snuffed by the orchestrated outrage and “debate” over whether or not he should be deemed a deserter and whether the prisoner swap was a good or bad deal and who is to blame if it’s seen as “bad”. Republican political ambitions will be resurrected by attempts to paint whoever has to preside over the defeat in Afghanistan as “appeasement”. The underlying issues of the criminality of these occupations which Bergdahl’s act called into question cannot be allowed into the discussion.
Winston Warfield is a member of the Smedley D. Butler Brigade of Veterans for Peace, in Boston.