Bowe Bergdahl and America’s Anti-War Hypocrisy

U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

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The controversy surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been as notable for its moral poverty as its rhetorical intensity. Conservatives have branded Bergdahl a traitor, hardly worth the five Afghan detainees for whom he was traded. Liberals have defended the exchange while stopping well short of defending the man himself. But if Bergdahl did indeed desert his unit while serving in Afghanistan, he is guilty only of acting on anti-war convictions most Americans claim to share.

That Bergdahl’s homecoming has been met with such disdain exposes the shallowness of anti-war sentiment in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the costs. Nearly 60 percent believe it was wrong to have invaded in the first place. Yet present them with a soldier like Bergdahl, who reached similar conclusions and may have actually dared to act on them, and he is condemned on all sides.

It is easy to criticize Bergdahl for the timing of his epiphany. No doubt it would have been better for all involved if he had left the army before going overseas, or if he had never joined in the first place. But that was not the hand he was dealt. As e-mails released by Rolling Stone demonstrate, Bergdahl did not come to recognize the war’s injustice until he was already in the field – until he was confronted with the brutal reality of troops unbothered by running over an Afghan child with their armored vehicle. Instead of rationalizing his continued participation in an immoral war, like so many other guilt-ridden troops, Bergdahl appears to have removed himself from that violent equation. Tellingly, his father’s last e-mail to him was titled, “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”

This, in the eyes of the political establishment, is Bergdahl’s greatest crime. Not that he endangered his fellow soldiers – who, as occupying troops in a foreign land, were already in grave danger – but that he refused to put his conscience on hold. Rather than waiting for the politicians back home to end the war, Bergdahl stands accused of declaring his own war over. Rather than resigning himself to what Israeli peace activists call “shooting and crying,” Bergdahl appears to have stopped shooting.

The significance of such an action cannot be overstated. Under a system in which suppressing one’s conscience is often necessary to get ahead – from the GM engineers who let people die in preventable car accidents to the Wall Street bankers whose mortgage fraud crashed the economy – to assert one’s principles in the moment is a revolutionary act. Agonized functionaries can be tolerated, as long as they get the job done. If Bergdahl had served out the rest of his tour without incident, if he had applied for conscientious objector status and waited for its approval, he might have returned home to a lucrative book deal with a progressive publisher. Because he allegedly did not wait to do the right thing, he has been savaged by the press and may face prison time.

This should be shocking in a country with an anti-war majority. But while most Americans claim to oppose the war, they remain unable to countenance the sort of actions that ending the war will require. The polite protests of the last decade – petitions, sit-ins, marches – have done nothing to stop the war machine. Americans forget that ending the Vietnam War had less to do with domestic protests than with resistance among U.S. troops, who deserted en masse, refused to engage the Vietnamese in battle, and even took up arms against their own officers.

Can there be any doubt that if troops in Afghanistan had followed their lead, the war would not now be in its thirteenth year? Those who claim to oppose the war while criticizing Bergdahl’s alleged desertion implicitly favor continuing the war over a breakdown of military discipline. They are essentially saying: We do not believe this war should be fought, but we expect you to remain at your post, to kill others and perhaps even die yourself, until we bring it to a proper conclusion. This is the height of privilege, the height of bourgeois self-righteousness.

Such an attitude is particularly shameful given that the American public bears a large share of responsibility for Bergdahl’s predicament. Every day that people on the home front prove unable or unwilling to stop the wars fought in their name, they leave those on the front lines stranded in what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations.” Tortured by their moral complicity and abandoned by the public, it should come as no surprise that some troops will avail themselves of the only option left to them – voting with their feet.

Bergdahl is finally home. But as long as the American people remain missing in action, more troops like him will find themselves trapped on foreign battlefields, forced to choose between their conscience and their country.

Youth Activists Need to Think Outside the Ballot Box

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There’s been a lot of buzz recently around left-wing candidates running in — and winning — local races across the country. That’s particularly true now in Chicago, with the Sun-Times reporting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election bid would be vulnerable to challenge from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.

But, as I write in my column for The Chicago Bureau this week, redirecting funds and energy into the electoral process would carry serious opportunity costs for activists committed to movement-building.

This critical appraisal of electioneering won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers. During the 2010 midterms I argued that left-leaning voters shouldn’t reward the Democratic Party for its staunch support of war and corporate welfare. I made a similar case during the 2012 presidential campaign, when I advanced a moral argument for electoral abstention.

My new piece for the Bureau expands on these themes by offering a more tactical critique of electoral campaigns, especially how they divert needed resources from front-line activists and foreclose more radical possibilities. Check it out here.

Immigration Reform Is Dead — And That’s a Good Thing

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I’m thrilled to announce the launch of my new weekly column with The Chicago Bureau, a youth issues watchdog. Last summer I wrote a feature for the Bureau examining some of the more troubling elements of the Youth PROMISE Act, which was embraced by leading advocacy organizations as a step toward ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The Bureau does fantastic work on a range of issues, from juvenile justice to education policy to racial and economic inequality, so it’s great to be back.

My first Bureau column, “Immigration Reform Is Dead — And That’s a Good Thing,” takes aim at the immigration reform bill recently killed by House Republicans. The bill has been advertised as a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and its demise has outraged immigrant justice advocates.

Yet passage of the current bill would be only a symbolic victory for the immigrant justice movement. As I write in the column: “The reform’s brutal border security provisions and classist path to citizenship would seriously harm immigrant communities while undermining the solidarity needed to resist the onslaught.” You can read the rest here.

I’m happy to report that the piece has also been picked up by