The Scapegoating of Bowe Bergdahl


The orchestrated assault by neocons, hawks, and right wing fanatics on the character of Bowe Bergdahl, and the ongoing trial by media with the presumption of guilt is contemptible. However he found himself the captive of the Taliban he has already been dealt an exactingly punitive consequence and, judging by the hostile circus already in evidence, his odyssey back to this country will undoubtedly be harrowing. At this stage all we know about his motivation for being outside his post that fateful evening are the fragments of emails to his family that have been published. He appears to have become overpoweringly disillusioned and conscience stricken after finding himself embedded in a state sponsored crime, coupled with his awareness of how corruptly the military operates from within, most especially in combat zones. His statements about the contempt his fellow soldiers expressed toward the Afghans he idealistically imagined he was in country to save, and his revulsion at the death of a small child run over by an armored vehicle, signifies a young man wedged in a profound moral quandary. His dilemma was that he perceived that his humanity was steadily degenerating until soon there would be nothing left but all consuming guilt and moral (or not unlikely, physical) self-destruction.

I have yet to view, or hear a single account in the broadcast corporate media that does not imply, or outright charge, that Bergdahl has been derelict in his soldierly duty, or deserted or defected to the enemy. No voice I’ve heard has been raised of the possibility that Bergdahl was suffering an overpowering crisis of conscience.

His father told him to follow his conscience but as many veterans will attest conscience, when directed in favor of the “enemy” is not a martial virtue. Bergdahl seems to have recognized the reeking pestilential sewer of the Afghan War for what it is, much like another former young starry-eyed idealist, Pat Tillman, who was cut down before he could employ his celebrity status to condemn the war outright.

I have not studied psychology, and though I have read widely about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I claim no expertise. I was, however, the director of a veterans’ program at a major state university for many years in the 1980s.The term PTSD derives from the psychological disasters that ensued in the aftershocks of the Vietnam War when homelessness, imprisonment, drug and alcoholic self-destructiveness and suicide became rampant among veterans of that calamitous tragedy. I was still young and naïve enough to believe that American society would learn profound lessons from this post-war disaster, and understand that the epidemiology of PTSD was rooted in soldiers’ guilt and shame for the mass killing that is war’s heart of darkness. In 1982 at the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial I heard Ron Kovic declare that the Wall was missing something. At the pinnacle of the nation’s reflective wailing wall, he said, the words “Never Again” should be engraved for all to see.  But the cold sad fact is that the public cared little and learned nothing. Exactly the same consequences are in play today because too many inhabitants observe a corrupt civic religion and fail to live up to the requirements of genuine citizenship thereby falling for a catechism of lies yet again, and then allowing the sacrifice of  another generation of naïve and idealistic soldiers on the altar of treachery.

There were many programs at colleges and universities, intended to counsel and educate veterans after Vietnam so that they could matriculate and succeed in post-secondary education. Other programs , like the storefront VET Centers, were established to provide necessary psychological counseling to veterans who would not visit the Veterans’ Administration hospitals because they felt extremely dissed and misunderstood there.

But few of us were equipped for the sheer volume, variety and intensity of challenges we would face. I can scarcely count the times I rushed a fellow vet to the emergency room near death from alcohol and downers. How many funerals did I attend of young men who died from war’s aftermath, who deliberately took their own lives? Once a deeply troubled former G.I. walked into my office with a loaded .45 caliber weapon and put it to my head with a grin, then put it in his mouth. We spent a horrifically tense 2 1/2 hours together until I and a program counselor convinced him to seek treatment at a Veterans Administration psychiatric facility and were able with the campus police to disarm him. He spent a year in a lock up ward, was released and within two weeks took his own life with another gun! Many more did it the slow way with booze and qualudes.

More than a few vets seemed to see me, and others in a similar position, as a kind of father confessor and would reveal their innermost pain and guilt, in some cases owing to regret at making it out alive when buddies did not, but most often when they described acts committed against Vietnamese and could no longer abide themselves. One terribly afflicted soul described scoping out a perimeter while setting up a night camp and upon discovering a Vietnamese woman bathing a child in a stream, opened up, turning them both into “hamburger.” He wept as he spoke told me he had been religious as a youth and asked me how he had become the creature who could do such a thing. Mother and child visited him every night he said. Another described a night ambush and firing on what his squad thought were Viet Cong guerrillas but at dawn it turned out they were villagers, mostly women and children, trying to use the cover of night to reach a safer place. There were still some alive and my friend said he thought the wounded would be treated. Instead the officer told him to kill the wounded which, fearing retribution, he did. Many years later he was found dead on the street, his body wasted from alcohol, drugs and malnutrition.  There were too many more deeply despairing narrations like that and I know that I was not alone in hearing them all across the country. Such are the real wages of war.

Unfortunately for every one veteran who will admit to being revolted by his/her war experiences and resolves to act against war, a hundred will succumb to the military’s bravado culture and believe they must “suck it up.” Most will remain silent, often for the rest of their lives, burying the real pain and trauma they’ve suffered, thus enabling the shills of war to maintain that war is a glorious enterprise, the supreme measure of “manhood” or of patriotism.

I’ve heard it claimed that today’s military brass exercise much more discipline and therefore on the whole prevent the daily atrocities that characterized the war in Vietnam where, as many vets will tell you, there were whole areas where it was just fine to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented beyond any doubt. But there have been reports of similar atrocities in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and there were certainly many hundreds of thousands of deaths and casualties among Afghan and Iraqi civilians, uncountable widows and orphans too, and many tens of thousands of American troops to witness these victims. Many soldiers and veterans are disgusted, sickened and appalled at their own share in the carnage and have come to see that their immaturity and naivete was cynically exploited in the aftermath of 9-11. That is why Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) was founded (as well as Vietnam Veterans Against the War).

The charge that aims to inflict the most damage on Bergdahl’s character is that he willfully abandoned his fellow soldiers and caused their deaths when they were deployed to search for him. That is an absolute falsehood. His unit patrolled and went out on combat missions regularly and looking for Bergdahl was just another factor in those daily recons. One commentator argues that it was the Taliban who killed the six or eight troopers not Bergdahl. In reality it was the U.S government that deployed armies on the basis of lies and misdirection that is responsible for the deaths of over 7,000 soldiers and marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention tens of thousands wounded in body and soul.

Let us note that the arming of mujahideen in the 1980s to fight the Soviets fulfilled the most cherished hopes of imperial hawks like Zbigniew Brzezinski but the upshot of the Red Army’s withdrawal from that tortured land was the utter collapse of its society. Washington smugly walked away and washed its hands of any responsibility to aid in its reconstruction. After a vicious civil war the Taliban gained control of most of the country. Throughout the 1990s the U.S. media emphasized the Taliban’s atrocious rule, describing beheadings, and the stoning of women. Terrible as such actions were the story that received the most attention and worldwide condemnation was the destruction of the great stone statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. One story that received almost no note was the meeting in George Bush’s Texas between representatives of the Unocal Oil Company, the CIA and the Taliban about a proposal to build a pipeline from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, that would carry Central Asian oil and gas resources into the control of Western energy conglomerates. The Taliban refused because they were not offered enough money. If the Taliban were suddenly to accept the American proposal Washington would undoubtedly crawl right into bed with them. When it was clear that there would be no guarantee for the pipeline the U.S. military began drawing up plans to invade Afghanistan at least a year before 9-11. Given growing concern within the Bush-Cheney administration about dwindling energy reserves worldwide, the perceived need to seize and control outlying assets became imperative policy. All that was needed was a “new Pearl Harbor.”

To honor the aid given by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda during the Soviet War the Taliban granted him safe haven in Afghanistan. But what is never reported is that the Taliban warned Al Qaeda not to use Afghan territory for attacks on American targets. The logic was simple. The Taliban did not want American heat to come down on them. Indeed, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were plotted in Germany. The Taliban did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001. Nevertheless the plans to invade proceeded immediately. Because Bush-Cheney believed Afghanistan would be a cakewalk they diverted military assets to the far greater and more strategic reservoir of oil in Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to escape into neighboring Pakistan.

While many, if not most, Afghanis were happy to see the extremely repressive Taliban banished that did not last long. Just as American “free fire zones” in Vietnam did as much for Viet Cong recruiting as the VC’s  own efforts so the presence of a new set of foreign occupiers in Afghanistan fueled the comeback of the Taliban, which like the NLF in Vietnam after 1972 is simply waiting for the hated Americans to depart. Then the American misadventure will be shown for the feckless and criminal idiocy it is. Or will it?

Will we then erect another cenotaph in Washington and pretend that the names so engraved are evidence of our exceptionalism as Obama so recently sought to sanctify? Will their needless deaths, and the suffering of many tens of thousands of wounded awaken us finally to our recklessness and deadened consciences?

Bergdahl’s quandary is our own.

Do we learn that our calamitous policies are leading us and the world at large to a dead end and therefore change course? Or will we allow the fanatic right wing to condemn this young soldier as the scapegoat and poster boy for their moral void? Already hate surrounds his homecoming. He will need all the support we can provide.

Paul Atwood is Interim Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and faculty in the American Studies Department, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and member of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace. He is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.

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