Making Dissent a Mental Illness

Making Dissent a Mental Illness

On Bowe Bergdahl and conscientious objection


“[W]e are nothing but
 camping boy [scouts],” Bowe Bergdahl wrote the year before he wandered away from a remote US Army post in eastern Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban. “Hiding from children behind our heavy armored trucks and our c-wire and sand bagged operating post, we tell our selves that we are not cowards.”

“Coward” is precisely the accusation that right-wing pundits have been leveling at Bergdahl since the news broke that the Obama administration had freed five Guantánamo Bay prisoners in exchange for his release. Having criticized Obama for not doing enough to bring Bergdahl home, the right immediately launched a slimy campaign to prove that Bergdahl wasn’t worth the swap, that he was the wrong kind of soldier—a deserter.

The media are now scrutinizing Bergdahl’s “mental instability” (as supposedly revealed by personal journals and correspondence published in The Washington Post), much as they did in the case of Chelsea Manning, who was frequently described as fragile and troubled. In Manning’s case, the relentless focus on personal issues precluded a real reckoning with the “incredible things, awful things,” that Manning discovered the US military had done in Iraq—abuses that she said motivated her to release hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

E-mails that Bergdahl sent to his parents from Afghanistan indicate that he was struggling with a dysfunctional unit as well as his own conscience. “I am sorry for everything here,” he wrote after seeing an American military vehicle run over an Afghan child. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing.”

There is something uncomfortable about the impulse to defend Bergdahl with suggestions of mental unsoundness; in it are echoes of America’s eagerness to pathologize dissent. As President Obama pushes to prolong military engagement in Afghanistan, it may be more useful to stop asking what went wrong with Bowe Bergdahl and instead consider what went wrong with our country in our decision to go to war.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy