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.

2 thoughts on “Bowe Bergdahl and America’s Anti-War Hypocrisy

  1. THIS Exposition on the HYPOCRISY of the American POPULATION itself — far beyond the punditry, the media, the “powers-that-be” , the government, the corporations — but the AMERICAN PEOPLE”s OWN hypocrisy is the TRUEST article I have read concerning “america” itself and ITS war CULTURE — which resides IN americans themselves, exemplified by how easily they can traverse the dichotomy described in that hypocrisy of being “anti-war”, “peace-loving people”…YET unwilling or unable to confront their own personal and collective hypocrisy as a “nation”.

    I often read – such as in — about how “the american PEOPLE really DON’T want war” — that they are merely being “misled” by such and such “intellects” and leaderships………..but I have long suspected that the WAR Culture ITSELF Resides IN and AMONG the ORDINARY americans…and that the institutions of war , the corporatism and capitalist War Making in all its aspects — inherent even in its Class Wars that simply express themselves globally as Military and Economic Wars —

    ARE inherent in americans as a people BECAUSE of their own myths and beliefs — INCLUDING being “peace-loving” or “true patriots who don’t like going to war” BECOMING PART of their own collective and methodical cultural way of convincing each other that “we are peace-loving”.

    this article comes CLOSE to my suspicion about americans – as a nation and culture — as , contrary to what even great writers like Justin Raimondo say are “really peace-loving and against war”.

    when given the “RIGHT” reasons — such as “it’s going to be worth it” — Americans ALWAYS have supported war , one way or another, directly or indirectly….and whatever americans or even great writers such as Raimondo say to the contrary — the LAST proofs of that is the EFFECTS upon the peoples of other countries — to whom all that matters is :

    “AMERICANS” made war on THEM! and unless americans – in now about 2 centuries of Foreign meddling and imperialism – there is no other word for it — actually brought to bear with whatever “power and resourcefulness” they SUPPOSEDLY had all these generations to “build our great country through our hard work and sense of independence, liberty , and responsibility” —

    ON NEVER ONCE even allowing SUCH foreign adventures —

    the PROOF does NOT exist that Americans — as a people, nation, and population at large — with or without their “war institutions” — actually HAVE BEEN the “peace-loving” people that they are CLAIMED to be — and claimed to be “merely misled”.

    One indicator in my view that Americans as a “culture” or “people” — however one might want to assign it — are indeed WAR – LIKE is not only the common language that often is steeped in “confrontations” — “war against” this or that, “battling this or that”, “fighting this or that”….lots and lots of talk about “conquering” “disease” , “conquering” badness, “defeating such and such”….”controlling this or that”….”taking charge this or that”……

    but even more so in the REPEATED penchant of americans to support “the troops” or wars or “defending america”, or “upholding america” – UNTIL such “wars” or adventures turn Dismal FOR Americans — and then it becomes “not worth it”!

    what? it was WORTH IT so long as the ordinary american’s pocket book can still take it? how about THOSE “out there?” while americans THOUGHT it was “worth it?”

    TO me that always was an indicator — WAR is what americans LOVE — SO LONG as they PERCEIVE they can profit from it — whether as “vested interests” or profit in their self-image as “victors” or that it doesn’t “harm our economy, my job, my bank account, our mortgage and interest rates and price of living”…

    but the MOMENT it is FELT “at home” some way that WAR is “too costly” — it becomes “not worth it”.

    A PEOPLE can not be said to be “against war and love peace only” When it can JUSTIFY one way or another its own country’s imperial adventures , whether or not that people THINK Of it as Imperial or merely “defense”.

    it is EITHER you PERMITTED it to grow as a part of your country’s culture — or NOT.

    No — WAR IS as american as apple pie. it is not “sold” by war institutions — rather such institutions EXIST and have thrived BECAUSE americans WANTED them to BE. in order to give themselves “national” reasons to realize what their inherent cultural trait IS :

    WAR -LIKE.

    A superb reader/commentator in the Letters Section of Asiatimes (online) — a guy from Texas named Hardy Campbell — put it best, imo:

    “All our traditions, our beliefs, our Myths, our Patriotisms, our professions of Nationhood , our Parades, Holidays, Celebrations, Flags, all our Traditions and Discussions, all our ways of telling each other about our greatness and goodness and being civilized , all our Claims about the superiority of our american way from the times we took the Land of the Natives — are only our COLLECTIVE WAYS of BURYING OUR SINS AS A NATION”.

  2. Dear Mr. Kovac, Thank you for writing one of the most thoughtful articles about Bowe since we all learned his name while he sat in a white Toyota pick-up, waiting to be rescued, somewhere in Afghanistan. Please try to get your article to Bowe so that he might have some hope that there are many of us who support him and are happy that he is back home.

    A concerned Canadian and Mother

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