The controversy surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been as notable for its moral poverty as its rhetorical intensity. Conservatives have branded Bergdahl a traitor, hardly worth the five Afghan detainees for whom he was traded. Liberals have defended the exchange while stopping well short of defending the man himself. But if Bergdahl did indeed desert his unit while serving in Afghanistan, he is guilty only of acting on antiwar convictions most Americans claim to share.
That Bergdahl’s homecoming has been met with such disdain exposes the shallowness of antiwar sentiment in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the costs. Nearly 60 percent believe it was wrong to have invaded in the first place. Yet present them with a soldier like Bergdahl, who reached similar conclusions and may have actually dared to act on them, and he is condemned on all sides.
It is easy to criticize Bergdahl for the timing of his epiphany. No doubt it would have been better for all involved if he had left the army before going overseas, or if he had never joined in the first place. But that was not the hand he was dealt. As e-mails released by Rolling Stone demonstrate, Bergdahl did not come to recognize the war’s injustice until he was already in the field – until he was confronted with the brutal reality of troops unbothered by running over an Afghan child with their armored vehicle. Instead of rationalizing his continued participation in an immoral war, like so many other guilt-ridden troops, Bergdahl appears to have removed himself from that violent equation. Tellingly, his father’s last e-mail to him was titled, "OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!"
This, in the eyes of the political establishment, is Bergdahl’s greatest crime. Not that he endangered his fellow soldiers – who, as occupying troops in a foreign land, were already in grave danger – but that he refused to put his conscience on hold. Rather than waiting for the politicians back home to end the war, Bergdahl stands accused of declaring his own war over. Rather than resigning himself to what Israeli peace activists call "shooting and crying," Bergdahl appears to have stopped shooting.
The significance of such an action cannot be overstated. Under a system in which suppressing one’s conscience is often necessary to get ahead – from the GM engineers who let people die in preventable car accidents to the Wall Street bankers whose mortgage fraud crashed the economy – to assert one’s principles in the moment is a revolutionary act. Agonized functionaries can be tolerated, as long as they get the job done. If Bergdahl had served out the rest of his tour without incident, if he had applied for conscientious objector status and waited for its approval, he might have returned home to a lucrative book deal with a progressive publisher. Because he allegedly did not wait to do the right thing, he has been savaged by the press and may face prison time.
This should be shocking in a country with an antiwar majority. But while most Americans claim to oppose the war, they remain unable to countenance the sort of actions that ending the war will require. The polite protests of the last decade – petitions, sit-ins, marches – have done nothing to stop the war machine. Americans forget that ending the Vietnam War had less to do with domestic protests than with resistance among U.S. troops, who deserted en masse, refused to engage the Vietnamese in battle, and even took up arms against their own officers.
Can there be any doubt that if troops in Afghanistan had followed their lead, the war would not now be in its thirteenth year? Those who claim to oppose the war while criticizing Bergdahl’s alleged desertion implicitly favor continuing the war over a breakdown of military discipline. They are essentially saying: We do not believe this war should be fought, but we expect you to remain at your post, to kill others and perhaps even die yourself, until we bring it to a proper conclusion. This is the height of privilege, the height of bourgeois self-righteousness.
Such an attitude is particularly shameful given that the American public bears a large share of responsibility for Bergdahl’s predicament. Every day that people on the home front prove unable or unwilling to stop the wars fought in their name, they leave those on the front lines stranded in what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called "atrocity-producing situations." Tortured by their moral complicity and abandoned by the public, it should come as no surprise that some troops will avail themselves of the only option left to them – voting with their feet.
Bergdahl is finally home. But as long as the American people remain missing in action, more troops like him will find themselves trapped on foreign battlefields, forced to choose between their conscience and their country.
Matthew Kovac is an award-winning independent journalist and political commentator. He writes for The Chicago Bureau and has covered race and poverty issues for The Chicago Reporter. For more of his work, visit matthewkovac.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewKovac. This piece first appeared at matthewkovac.com.