Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters

Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters

Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters

The hateful commentary about the soldier’s return is motivated by fear of what his so-called desertion reveals.


“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.

“It’s unfortunate he did not know the full range of options he had under the law,” Branum said, “but one of the problems is that the military does not inform soldiers of their rights under the law to seek a discharge on the grounds of conscience.”

There’s no obligation for the military to—for commanders to inform service members of this right. Therefore, a right that you don’t know about effectively doesn’t exist. This is the logic of the Miranda decision and the Supreme Court said that the typical criminal defendant may not know they have the right to not talk to the police. In the same situation here a service member may not know they have the right to apply for this status unless this is told to them. Unfortunately that is not the case, and I think there is a very high likelihood that Sergeant Bergdahl may have struggled with issues of conscience, but did not know this process was there.

What a depressing commentary it is to note that American soldiers faced the very same problems in Vietnam, as the 1973 Nation article makes clear:

One instructor at the Army’s Adjutant General’s Corps School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., where personnel officers are trained, bragged that while stationed at Fort Sill, Okla. ‘he had never let a single discharge get through his office.’ His attitude—that most GIs seeking discharge are merely shirkers—is not atypical, despite regulations that provide for discharge in a number of clear-cut cases. But even these provisions are not publicized by the armed forces, and are often unknown to GIs.

The author of the 1973 essay, “The Truth About Deserters,” was Robert K. Musil, a former Army captain discharged as a conscientious objector, who worked to advocate for the rights of resisters, objectors and deserters. He later became CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which in 1985 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1997, Musil has been a professor at the American University Nuclear Studies Institute, and has authored books about nuclear weapons and climate change. He is one of the leading American experts on public health, environmental sustainability and nuclear disarmament.

I spoke with Musil today about how his Nation article relates to Bowe Bergdahl.

“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Musil says. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”

In that sense, Musil told me, Bergdahl represents many thousands of other members of the US military who resort to desertion as the only possible escape: “When you look at them as individuals, as I did in 1973, you discover that they are Americans who have been caught in a system in which they have very little recourse if they have serious problems. Despite rhetoric of ‘support our boys,’ the support networks are extremely thin. It’s the only job in the world where if it gets intolerable you can’t just up and quit.”

Musil notes that during both the Vietnam and the Afghan wars, the very rhetoric used to describe soldiers like Bergdahl has been fraught with jingoism.

“The response from the right wing has been to immediately attack Bergdahl and resort to old stereotypes that he is a deserter, the worst thing you could possibly be,” Musil says. “The term ‘deserter’ is a classic stereotype and it is wildly derogatory. If it were a racial stereotype Twitter would be ablaze. But ‘deserter,’ that’s okay.”

Myths survive because they are useful. As with Vietnam, Musil suggests, there is a clear reason military hawks need to demean so-called deserters: “We don’t know why he walked away. There are many, many reasons, none of which reflect terribly well on our presence in Afghanistan or on military units. If you begin to say there are a lot of people who are concerned about our role in Afghanistan or how the military treats the enlisted or a lack of medical care, it begins to make people ask why we are doing this or why we aren’t doing it differently.”

Though he has not been engaged in the struggle to defend conscientious objectors for many years, Musil says that the fundamental problems he wrote about in The Nation in 1973 have scarcely changed at all:

The process for being discharged as a conscientious objector has gotten easier, but it is by no means easy. You have to demonstrate an opposition to all wars based on deeply held religious, moral or philosophical beliefs. But that process, in the 1970s and today, is entirely class-based. I wrote the equivalent of a Master’s thesis for my conscientious objector statement. You have to show psychiatrists you aren’t crazy. It’s like applying to graduate school. If you’re a working class kid, can you articulate these extremely complicated opinions or emotions to a bunch of people who really want you to go to war? Can you do that when you’re already in the field?

People are intimidated. There is this little final prejudice that people in the military are considered volunteers—you sign up, take an oath. So how can you possibly not want to participate in war? The very simple idea that either seeing war up close and personal or observing its effects and hearing about it from every buddy in your unit might turn you against the war, it’s just not conceivable to some people.

The return of Bowe Bergdahl represents for the United States one of those most squandered and therefore hated things: a teachable moment. As far as I can tell, only two twitterers—one of which was The Weekly Standard’s literary editor, Philip Terzian—have noted that the pronunciation of the surname of our latest Hester Prynne is the same as the pronunciation of that of an earlier one guilty of nearly the same “crime.” Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the son of a German immigrant and a wealthy playboy aviator in Philadelphia, evaded Wilson’s draft before being nabbed by bounty hunters in 1920 and imprisoned on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. He soon escaped and fled to Germany and lived in peace for many years, before handing himself over to American authorities in 1939 rather than risk being drafted into the Nazi army. Released from prison in 1946, he was packed off to an asylum where he lived the rest of his days before dying in 1966, “demented and forgotten,” as a Philadelphia history blog puts it. Surely, 100 years after the beginning of the war Bergdoll sought to avoid, we live in a civilization that can afford to be more creative in its ideas about what to do with those who do not wish to plug slugs into human flesh and call it the promotion of democracy. Some of us, at least, would like to think so.

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