Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and the Psychology of War

More than five years ago a soldier named Bowe Bergdahl left his U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan. He was captured, imprisoned in brutal conditions for five years, and finally released in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Army is now considering whether he should be court-martialed for desertion and other crimes.

Bergdahl’s case needs to be understood, not only in terms of his actions, but also what is known about the psychology of war. What we have learned ought to give pause to those eager to send young people off to fight and die. To explain, let’s review some of the research on the psychological stressors relevant to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Many soldiers exposed to the trauma of war develop debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These include depression, feelings of despair or shame, chronic pain, flashbacks, nightmares and hyper arousal which can and do lead to serious problems with drugs and alcohol, relationships, and employment. Sufferers have elevated rates of suicide, homelessness, violent outbursts, as well as military desertion and going AWOL.

PTSD among soldiers is quite common, and has been present since the dawn of the republic. Although the condition was not well understood at the time, there were very large numbers of psychological casualties during the American Civil War. More recently, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD has affected close to 30 percent of Vietnam veterans at some point in their lives, and 15 percent at any given time. For Iraq and Afghanistan vets, 11 to 20 percent experience PTSD in any given year. What this means is that, at a minimum, 250,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from the condition. Most of the nearly 50,000 homeless veterans are affected by PTSD, which is also associated with acts of violence and a suicide rate double that of civilians, about 22 per day – every day.

More broadly, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, nearly one-third of the 2.4 million men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, around 730,000 soldiers, had returned home with a mental health condition by 2012. Since then, those numbers have grown, and it is very likely that Bowe Bergdahl is one of them.

Some soldiers are at higher risk of developing PTSD than others. Younger troops are more vulnerable. We know now that parts of the human brain continue to develop and mature until around the age of 25. Neuroscientist James Fallon argues that, “Sending kids to war at 18 is ridiculous, as they’re still in an active state of frontal lobe development.”

Recently, brain injuries due to blast effects have been found to produce PTSD-like symptoms including seizures, motor and sleep disorders, mood changes, and memory and speech problems. Mild cases do not generally cause lasting harm, but there have been more than 27,000 more severe cases diagnosed since 2000.

It is seldom reported that rates of PTSD greatly increase for veterans that have harmed prisoners or civilians. Among Vietnam veterans, about 13 percent reported personally inflicting harm to those groups. Their rates of PTSD were quadruple those of non-harming vets according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. Even decades after the Vietnam War ended, 40 percent of those that had done harm still had PTSD symptoms.

In terms of raw numbers, 350,000 U.S. Vietnam vets admit to having harmed prisoners or civilians during the conflict and 220,000 of those still suffer from PTSD. This needs to be emphasized: Research has shown that it is not only the victims of torture and abuse who are hurt (and killed); the abusers are damaged as well.

This is one of the costs of war that is seldom discussed and rarely addressed. The American people need to understand that when they endorse torture (and polls show that half of us do), or indiscriminate use of violence against civilians, they are implicitly consenting to large numbers of psychological casualties among soldiers from their own side of the conflict.

Bowe Bergdahl is most likely only one among hundreds of thousands of American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are psychologically injured and yet it appears that he is being singled out for exemplary punishment. It is very unlikely that he is a deserter in the legal sense of the term, but even if he is, he would just be one of 40,000 other Americans who have walked away from those wars. Very few have faced serious prosecution.

PTSD can be understood as the response of a sane mind to an insane situation. It is an inevitable by-product of war. Americans need to understand that when they send their young people off to do battle, many of them will return home with grave psychological injuries.

Veterans for Peace supports soldiers who decide that they can no longer participate in the insanity of war, including Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

More articles by:

Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.

Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
Dave Lindorff
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town
July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism