Bowe Bergdahl, Desertion, and the Meaning of American Loyalty

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

Jane and Bob Bergdahl, parents of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, hold a press conference with President Barack Obama. Conservatives, of course, complained about it.

On May 31, 2014, U.S. president (and secret Muslim-communist-fascist-anti-colonialist-dentist) Barack Obama announced that he’d negotiated for the release of Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last known POW, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Since at least July of 2009, Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s premier Muslim religious nutball cult, and the president’s actions ignited hope for the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year-long U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, which now ranks as America’s longest-running war.

Oh, but not everybody was happy about Bergdahl’s release. For you see, there’s a bit of controversy as to just how the sergeant disappeared from active duty back in June, 2009. Although Bergdahl remains a sergeant in good-standing, there have been allegations that he deserted his post. Some of his fellow-soldiers have accused Bergdahl of “deserting during a time of war” and costing the lives of many who searched for him. Accounts of Bergdahl’s disappearance — and the circumstances of exactly how he fell into the Taliban’s clutches — have been conflicting. Soldiers in his platoon have claimed that the sergeant walked away from his observation post, while other accounts claim that Bergdahl was abducted from a latrine by Taliban insurgents.

But whatever the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the usual hot gas-disgorging chorus of chest-puffing, self-righteousness-exuding, right-wing howler monkeys have taken to the media outlets to not only criticize President Obama’s handling of the prisoner exchange, but also to deride Bergdahl himself as an anti-American “traitor.”

Among the collective of expected conservative bloviators was former half-term governor of Alaska — and poster-child for the calcified state of American meritocracy — Sarah Palin. Yes, the Thrilla’ from Wasilla launched a scathing verbal assault from her Facebook page,  accusing Bergdahl of dishonorable service for harboring “horrid anti-American beliefs.” As Talking Points Memo reports, Caribou Barbie was referring to an e-mail message that Bergdahl sent to his parents just days before he went missing, in which the sergeant claimed to be “ashamed to be an american (sic),” and warned that “the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The e-mail was subsequently published in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile by the now-deceased journalist Michael Hastings.

Now, whether or not Bergdahl deserted is unclear, and if he did, then he’ll be court-martialed in accordance with military law. But I want to focus on the right-wing’s scathing reaction to the mere possibility that he might have deserted. After all, as Mother Jones’ Tasneen Raja notes, the army makes a clear distinction between soldiers who’ve gone AWOL by taking unauthorized leave from their duties, and soldiers who have been AWOL for over thirty-one days and are then summarily ‘dropped from the rolls’ and marked as deserters. If Bergdahl went AWOL and was then captured, then he wasn’t technically a deserter.

But these types of distinctions, and the fact that Bergdahl remains in good standing with the U.S. military, haven’t stopped conservatives like National Review jerk-in-residence, Ralph Peters from calling Bergdahl “a deserter already despised by soldiers” who is apparently now “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.” Wow. Notice how Peters doesn’t call Bergdahl an “alleged deserter.” No, to the right-wing, mere allegations that Bergdahl deserted mean that he unquestionably did desert, and if you suggest otherwise then you’re an anti-American pinko. Because nuance BAD!

U.S. Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was released after five years of Taliban imprisonment.

Conservatives consider Bergdahl a traitor because he (apparently) dared to question the unquestionable wisdom of U.S. military actions. As Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone, Bergdahl “had been enticed to join the Army…with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves,” but the sergeant quickly became disillusioned with the undisciplined nature of his platoon and the alleged callousness of American actions in Afghanistan.

According to Hastings, Bergdahl wrote e-mails detailing “his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war,” which seemed counter to the stated strategy of winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”  “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live,” read one of Bergdahl’s e-mails. He then related his disgust with seeing an Afghan child run over by an MARP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks,” Bergdahl wrote, “[w]e make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bergdahl’s comments may not justify desertion (if, in fact, he did desert) but do they really amount to “horrid anti-American beliefs?” Is criticizing possibly misguided national policy, especially military actions, tantamount to taking a position against America in general? The answer to both of those questions is an unambiguous “no.” Indeed, the right to criticize misguided or dangerous national policies is one of the most sacred rights Americans hold: the right to patriotic dissent is what makes the U.S. different from totalitarian regimes that deem any questioning of state policy as traitorous.

But to the right-wing authoritarian personality, patriotism is synonymous with unconditional fealty to the military arm of the state and the willingness to commit violence in the name of the state’s nationalist goals. Conservatives love to tout their antipathy towards the U.S. government, but they loathe any fool who dares question that ambiguous, amorphous, vaguely defined-but glorious concept known as “America;” a precious gem that must be sanctified via blood sacrifice in the form of military operations that bomb the shit out of potential terrorists. For conservatives — and a good-many Americans in general — loyalty to the concept of “America,” if not its institutional governmental structure, should be unconditional. And because military service is culturally considered to be the highest form of patriotism, soldiers who shirk that duty by deserting have always been treated with extreme derision.

I don’t know if Bergdahl deserted, but let’s be clear: in terms of individual conceptions of loyalty, desertion has never constituted simple, clear-cut evidence of “anti-American beliefs.” Indeed, the circumstances of why American soldiers deserted or went AWOL in the past, and why they continue to do so today vary depending on individual conceptions of what constitutes a “just” and “necessary” war. Deserters have fled their posts in the past because they’ve questioned the established notion — a notion embraced by Palin and the right wing in general — that national loyalty is predicated on unconditional support for American war policy and demands total loyalty to the military as the agent that carries out that policy.

Take desertion during the American Civil War. During the course of that bloody, four-year conflict, thousands of men on both sides deserted from the armies, and Union and Confederate officials generally deemed them contemptible traitors for doing so. Confederate authorities in particular claimed that, in shirking their duty to defend the southern cause with a sacrifice of blood, deserters had expressed a de-facto rejection of the national cause itself.

Consider this 1863 anti-desertion proclamation by Confederate North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. “Now therefore, I…do issue this my proclamation, commanding all such evil disposed persons to desist from such base, cowardly and treasonable conduct,” Vance warned, adding that deserters would face “indictment and punishment” by Confederate courts as well as “the everlasting contempt and detestation of all good and honorable men.” The assertion was, of course, that deserters were by definition not honorable. “Certainly no crime could be greater, no cowardice more abject, no treason more base, than for a citizen of the State, enjoying its privileges and protection without sharing its dangers…to desert the colors which they have sworn to uphold,” Vance concluded, warning that deserters deserved at worst “a miserable death,” and at best a “vile and ignominious existence.”

An 1864 despiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper's Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

An 1864 depiction of Confederate deserters, from Harper’s Weekly. Desertion has never been just about American loyalty.

But contrary to the claims of Vance and other Confederate officials and pundits, Confederate soldiers deserted for a whole host of reasons. Many simply didn’t agree with the Confederacy’s right to exist and were conscripted into the army against their will. To them, deserting wasn’t a crime since they believed that the state illegally forced them into military service. Other Rebel deserters thought that since wealthy slaveholders had started the war to preserve their human property, then they, rather than poor white men, should do the fighting. Still other Confederates deserted out of disgust with what they considered to be poor Confederate policies regarding the treatment of soldiers; while others merely wanted to return home to their families rather than die in what increasingly looked like a pointless war.

But Zebulon Vance’s proclamation includes themes that Sarah Palin and other right-wing goons have dredged up from the historical basement to lob at Bowe Bergdahl. Like Vance, they view military service as the utmost form of patriotic devotion, and to question American war policy is tantamount to treason. Just as Vance claimed that there was “no treason more base” than desertion, the National Review’s Ralph Peters claims that, as an (alleged) deserter, Bowe Bergdahl is “the most-hated individual soldier in the history of our military.”

The views of Vance in the 1860s and conservatives in 2014 all center around a simple idea: that the nation is the supreme authority, and as a citizen of that nation, you must observe (if not fight as a member of) it’s most hallowed institution, the military. Failure to do so means you’re against the state. For America’s right wing, national loyalty functionally equates to unconditional obedience. Gee, how American of them. This is, of course, a very dangerous idea. To equate patriotism with subservience to the state is to squelch one of the most essential of all democratic freedoms: the right to patriotic consent.

If Bowe Bergdahl did desert, then he violated military policy and should be charged accordingly. But, to promote the idea that criticism of U.S. policy, verbal or otherwise, equates to an “anti-American” stance is a simplistic notion with disturbingly authoritarian undertones. When we, as a culture, associate national loyalty with unqualified acceptance of American war policies, we’re effectively acting like an authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. It might be against the law to desert, but it’s not against the law to critique war policies — especially if you’ve witnessed the shortcomings of those policies first-hand.

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