“Myths abound about deserters.”
So begins an essay in the April 16, 1973, issue of The Nation. Those who propagate such myths, the essay argued, “rely on World War II clichés and stereotypes of the bad guy slinking away from his buddies under fire.”
Amid a debate about whether to offer amnesty to those who had dodged the Vietnam draft and, more controversially, to those who abandoned the military once in its ranks, the Nixon administration and its allies launched what the Nation article called “a carefully orchestrated media campaign” to disparage the patriotism and integrity (and, not always implicitly, the manhood) of the latter.
The proliferation of such falsehoods and the denigration of so-called deserters, the essay argued, served very specific political purposes: “By portraying the number of deserters at large as insignificant, and impugning their motives as confused at best, but more likely as dishonorable and criminal, the Administration hopes in one blow to discredit its amnesty opposition, justify its war policies, and cover up long-standing abuses in the armed forces.”
To acknowledge the political motivations of many of the deserters—disbelief in the cause, disgust at fellow Americans’ behavior, moral objections to war generally—would be to undermine the foundations of the American project in Southeast Asia. It would, the Nation essayist concludes, “require an admission that massive numbers of ordinary, enlisted GIs rejected the war.”
One cannot help but glimpse evidence of precisely that fear behind the outpouring of truly vicious commentary about the return of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years in Taliban imprisonment. Bergdahl, if the accounts are correct, served on the front lines of the American imperial machine with the unenviable misfortune of doing so with eyes wide open. The obvious psychological duress evident in e-mails Bergdahl sent to his parents just before his July 2009 disappearance was the consequence of seeing reality all too clearly. Those who stop just short—often not even that—of calling for his execution betray in their almost uncontrollable vituperation a refusal to acknowledge the reality of this most recent American adventure in Asia, just as the Nixon administration stubbornly clung to the war in Vietnam.
It is true that if Bergdahl was struggling with issues of conscience at that remote outpost on the Afghan frontier, he did not need to abandon his post and crawl to the nearest town in search of an English speaker. James Branum, an Oklahoma-based lawyer for conscientious objectors and deserters, appeared on Democracy Now! Wednesday morning to explain what else Bergdahl could have done, and, more importantly, the likely reasons he instead acted as he did.