Making Dissent a Mental Illness

Making Dissent a Mental Illness

On Bowe Bergdahl and conscientious objection

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“[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.

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