Is Bowe Bergdahl a conscientious objector, a dissenter, or just a jerk?

    Who is Bowe Bergdahl? And what should happen to him? I’ve been trying to figure that out long before Sarah Koenig started doing so for the second season of blockbuster podcast “Serial.”

    WHYY is hosting a happy hour conversation about season two of “Serial” and the case of Bowe Bergdahl on March 15 (RSVP), hosted by NPR’s Quil Lawrence and featuring panelists Josh Fattal, Malcolm Nance, Rachel Van Landingham, and Chris Lombardi.

    Who is Bowe Bergdahl? And what should happen to him? I’ve been trying to figure that out long before Sarah Koenig started doing so for the second season of blockbuster podcast “Serial.”

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    Since November, millions have listened to her exploration of the case of Robert D. Bowdrie “Bowe” Bergdahl, who in June 2009 was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after he inexplicably left his post. After hearing Bergdahl’s own voice, captured by filmmaker Mark Boal (best known for “Zero Dark Thirty”), as well as Bergdahl’s friends, members of his platoon, military officials, and even some voices of the Taliban, you might feel like we still don’t know the answer.

    More questions than answers

    In the nearly two years since Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners, his case has been a kind of “Rashomon” for the public sphere. Some, from many veterans to Fox News to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, call Bergdahl a traitor, calling for the harshest punishment possible. Some others, citing his letters home questioning the Afghan war, claim he was on his way to being a conscientious objector.

    Still others see him as a screwed-up kid — someone who should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard, but who was welcomed into the Army in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Then there are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than how he can be used to support a partisan argument against President Obama.

    That’s the stew Koenig found when she took this on.

    Along with a handful of other journalists, I’ve been following legal and military news on Bergdahl since his 2014 release. After the Army served charges last spring — for desertion and the little-used “misbehavior before the enemy” — the story has raised questions about war, ethics, military justice, and trauma. This mix is familiar to me — both from my five years in the ’90s staffing the GI Rights Hotline for the Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and from my research for my upcoming book, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from the French and Indian War to the Forever War.”

    As the Bergdahl case unfolded, a small part of me kept wondering: Where does he belong? Had he crossed over into explicit dissent, joining figures like Ron Kovic and more recent soldiers who question the post-9/11 wars?   

    Dissent or delusion?

    In the political maelstrom surrounding this case, many of those recent dissenters have lined up to say yes. Veteran Brock McIntosh described his own Afghanistan dilemma on “Democracy Now,” while Veterans for Peace continues its “Free Bowe Bergdahl” campaign.

    But what also seemed clear early on was that Bergdahl had been a “troubled” soldier, by any criteria. There were his experiences as a homeschooled teen with hippyish parents, and the limited literacy of his letters home. Then, after the Article 32 pretrial proceedings started, we found out about the psychiatric assessments both during his brief Coast Guard enlistment and after coming home from his five-year captivity. We learned that the general investigating him found he was delusional.

    We learned more about Bergdahl’s internal landscape — his fascination with the Samurai warrior code bushido, and his belief that his command was so dysfunctional that he had to run to a nearby base and cause a major disturbance. As “Serial” arrived, Koenig led with that last revelation: Bergdahl knew that, by leaving, he was flipping over the table at Operating Post MEST and creating chaos. This revelation led many of my friends — some vets, some military journos — to pronounce him a jerk, the opposite of a hero, even after succeeding episodes outlined the horrific treatment he endured from the Taliban.

    I was still trying to reserve judgment: What kind of command failures would make a good soldier want to do this? In the podcast Mark Boal says flat-out that Bergdahl is not a conscientious objector, and I agree. But a CO is opposed to all wars. Many dissenters are not. Major Hugh Thompson landed a helicopter in Vietnam to stop the My Lai Massacre. Capt. Larry Rockwood  jumped a fence in Haiti to expose human rights abuses. Joe Darby leaked photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. What could have been going on in that one small command, part of an overall controversial war, that would warrant potentially hurting his “brothers” in the platoon?

    Was it the overall context, the stuff Koenig calls “the big picture”? The part of me that once counseled GIs is still angry on Bergdahl’s behalf about this messed-up war. Obama, who’d promised during his 2008 campaign to emphasize the Afghan war instead of Iraq, has continually ordered thousands more troops into Afghanistan, as casualties on all sides mounted. That’s the Army that accepted Bergdahl, and in which he first seemed to excel.

    “Serial” episode five then revealed what Bergdahl meant by “problems in his command.” And as I listened to him describe his hatred of his battalion commander, his fears of what his platoon might be ordered to do, his fear of a suicide mission, I felt the air fizzle out of my own arguments.

    Then there was Bergdahl’s passion for Ayn Rand, his email home as he prepared to leave:  “John Galt knows what I have to do.” Anyone who ever went through an Ayn Rand phase knows the frozen adolescent abstraction of it all, the clarity that felt just right. Suddenly I could  imagine a young Bergdahl, self-educated and full of that kind of individualist passion, finding the same certainty in Army Values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — an American version of that samurai creed he loved.

    Almost every 21st-century dissenter I’ve interviewed cites those values, as something inspirational until they were betrayed. Of course, that was also true of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran who managed to sound almost anti-war in a 2001 interview with 60 Minutes a few weeks before his execution. Delusion plus high-sounding principles is a dangerous combination.

    If only Bergdahl had shown an ability to articulate a response to the war itself, beyond the general “It all sucks; it makes no sense” common to all of them. If only he’d linked that passion and idealism to a critique of the war itself, perhaps including concern for Afghans themselves.

    After “nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan,” Army Ranger Rory Fanning told his command: “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.” In 2011, other young Afghan vets went back to the country after their tours were up, talking to farmers uprooted by war now living in “displaced persons” camps.

    Still, until the proceedings are over, the case will remain a window into the ongoing agonies of the Long War.

    Chris Lombardi lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her book, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from the French and Indian War to the Forever War,” will be published by The New Press in 2017. Until then, you can find her work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Guernica Magazine, Women’s Voices for Change, and her book’s working WordPress site.

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