Going after Bergdahl: Why don't more soldiers walk away?
American news media portrays Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his apparent decision to simply walk away from the war in Afghanistan as bizarre and incomprehensible.
I wonder why it doesn't happen all the time.
From The New York Times:
"Sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life. He slipped off the remote military outpost in Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan and took with him a soft backpack, water, knives, a notebook and writing materials, but left behind his body armor and weapons — startling, given the hostile environment around his outpost."There's little doubt. Bergdahl was politicized by what he saw.
"The future is too good to waste on lies," a 2012 Rolling Stone article quotes an email from Bergdahl to his father. "And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting."
Among other traumas, the then 23-year-old Idaho native witnessed an Afghan child run over by a U.S. Army vehicle. His fellow soldiers, he recalled, didn't seem to care.
The Times paints a portrait of a soldier who was alienated, burned out and possibly a victim of PTSD. "He wouldn't drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds," the paper quotes Cody Full, a member of Sergeant Bergdahls platoon, in an interview arranged by the Republican Party. "He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there [in Afghanistan], learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto."
Bergdahl's walk-away echoes Tim O'Brien's allegorical 1978 novel "Going After Cacciato," in which a U.S. soldier serving in Vietnam goes AWOL, determined to walk all the way to Paris. His buddies go after him. It soon becomes clear that Cacciato's comrades are less interested in catching him than in following his example.
All military forces contend with deserters, and the United States is no exception. "Army desertion rates have fluctuated since the Vietnam War — when they peaked at 5 percent. In the 1970s they hovered between 1% and 3%, which is up to three out of every 100 soldiers. Those rates plunged in the 1980s and early 1990s to between 2 and 3 out of every 1,000 soldiers," according to NBC News. By 2007, the fourth year of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the rate was up 80%, to nine out of 1,000.
Few deserters pull a Cacciato, opting out in the combat zone. Instead, while on leave, most just fail to report back.
Given the conditions faced by many U.S. soldiers in war zones, it's surprising that more don't lose it and take off.
Contrary to standard practice in the West for hundreds of years, American soldiers are assigned to repeated, long combat tours without sufficient time between missions to recuperate. They are often underequipped and, as was apparently the case in Bergdahl's unit, which reportedly had discipline and morale problems and were rarely given any context for their operations.
Then there's the nature of the wars themselves.
Since 1945, since they weren't authorized by Congress, every single one of America's wars has been illegal. They've all been wars of aggression — neither the Koreans nor the Vietnamese nor the Iraqis nor the Afghans posed any threat to the United States. And they've all featured aspects of what historians dubbed "total war" after World War II: combat in which civilian casualties are not regrettable accidents, but strategically considered and intentional.
When soldiers become vets, they're cast out into the streets, where many become homeless.
It doesn't take long for the truth to hit home. Many active-duty soldiers realize that they're peasant mercenaries for a cruel and uncaring empire.
Why don't more men (and women) pull a Bergdahl? The main incentive to remain at their posts may be the unremitting hostility of the locals — something Bergdahl no doubt experienced during five long years of captivity.