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Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters

If you want to understand why it's the case that on the one hand, the U.S. public and the majority of Congress turned against the war in Afghanistan a long time ago, and yet on the other hand, it's been so hard to end the war, this week's warmonger media storm against the diplomatic rescue of U.S. prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been very instructive.

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Bowe Bergdahl, Photo courtesy of the United States Army // The Nation

Bowe Bergdahl and the Honorable History of War Deserters

By Richard Kreitner

June 5, 2014
The Blog

"Myths abound about deserters."

So begins an essay in the April 16, 1973, issue of The Nation. Those who propagate such myths, the essay argued, "rely on World War II clichés and stereotypes of the bad guy slinking away from his buddies under fire."

Amid a debate about whether to offer amnesty to those who had dodged the Vietnam draft and, more controversially, to those who abandoned the military once in its ranks, the Nixon administration and its allies launched what the Nation article called "a carefully orchestrated media campaign" to disparage the patriotism and integrity (and, not always implicitly, the manhood) of the latter.

The proliferation of such falsehoods and the denigration of so-called deserters, the essay argued, served very specific political purposes: "By portraying the number of deserters at large as insignificant, and impugning their motives as confused at best, but more likely as dishonorable and criminal, the Administration hopes in one blow to discredit its amnesty opposition, justify its war policies, and cover up long-standing abuses in the armed forces."

To acknowledge the political motivations of many of the deserters - disbelief in the cause, disgust at fellow Americans' behavior, moral objections to war generally - would be to undermine the foundations of the American project in Southeast Asia. It would, the Nation essayist concludes, "require an admission that massive numbers of ordinary, enlisted GIs rejected the war."

One cannot help but glimpse evidence of precisely that fear behind the outpouring of truly vicious commentary about the return of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years in Taliban imprisonment. Bergdahl, if the accounts are correct, served on the front lines of the American imperial machine with the unenviable misfortune of doing so with eyes wide open. The obvious psychological duress evident in e-mails Bergdahl sent to his parents just before his July 2009 disappearance was the consequence of seeing reality all too clearly. Those who stop just short - often not even that - of calling for his execution betray in their almost uncontrollable vituperation a refusal to acknowledge the reality of this most recent American adventure in Asia, just as the Nixon administration stubbornly clung to the war in Vietnam.

It is true that if Bergdahl was struggling with issues of conscience at that remote outpost on the Afghan frontier, he did not need to abandon his post and crawl to the nearest town in search of an English speaker. James Branum, an Oklahoma-based lawyer for conscientious objectors and deserters, appeared on Democracy Now! Wednesday morning to explain what else Bergdahl could have done, and, more importantly, the likely reasons he instead acted as he did.

"It's unfortunate he did not know the full range of options he had under the law," Branum said, "but one of the problems is that the military does not inform soldiers of their rights under the law to seek a discharge on the grounds of conscience."

There's no obligation for the military to - for commanders to inform service members of this right. Therefore, a right that you don't know about effectively doesn't exist. This is the logic of the Miranda decision and the Supreme Court said that the typical criminal defendant may not know they have the right to not talk to the police. In the same situation here a service member may not know they have the right to apply for this status unless this is told to them. Unfortunately that is not the case, and I think there is a very high likelihood that Sergeant Bergdahl may have struggled with issues of conscience, but did not know this process was there.

What a depressing commentary it is to note that American soldiers faced the very same problems in Vietnam, as the 1973 Nation article makes clear:

One instructor at the Army's Adjutant General's Corps School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., where personnel officers are trained, bragged that while stationed at Fort Sill, Okla. `he had never let a single discharge get through his office.' His attitude - that most GIs seeking discharge are merely shirkers - is not atypical, despite regulations that provide for discharge in a number of clear-cut cases. But even these provisions are not publicized by the armed forces, and are often unknown to GIs.

The author of the 1973 essay, "The Truth About Deserters," was Robert K. Musil, a former Army captain discharged as a conscientious objector, who worked to advocate for the rights of resisters, objectors and deserters. He later became CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which in 1985 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1997, Musil has been a professor at the American University Nuclear Studies Institute, and has authored books about nuclear weapons and climate change. He is one of the leading American experts on public health, environmental sustainability and nuclear disarmament.

I spoke with Musil today about how his Nation article relates to Bowe Bergdahl.

"I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion," Musil says. "Where is all that rhetoric about `we support our troops'? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that's the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit."

In that sense, Musil told me, Bergdahl represents many thousands of other members of the US military who resort to desertion as the only possible escape: "When you look at them as individuals, as I did in 1973, you discover that they are Americans who have been caught in a system in which they have very little recourse if they have serious problems. Despite rhetoric of `support our boys,' the support networks are extremely thin. It's the only job in the world where if it gets intolerable you can't just up and quit."

Musil notes that during both the Vietnam and the Afghan wars, the very rhetoric used to describe soldiers like Bergdahl has been fraught with jingoism.

"The response from the right wing has been to immediately attack Bergdahl and resort to old stereotypes that he is a deserter, the worst thing you could possibly be," Musil says. "The term `deserter' is a classic stereotype and it is wildly derogatory. If it were a racial stereotype Twitter would be ablaze. But `deserter,' that's okay."

Myths survive because they are useful. As with Vietnam, Musil suggests, there is a clear reason military hawks need to demean so-called deserters: "We don't know why he walked away. There are many, many reasons, none of which reflect terribly well on our presence in Afghanistan or on military units. If you begin to say there are a lot of people who are concerned about our role in Afghanistan or how the military treats the enlisted or a lack of medical care, it begins to make people ask why we are doing this or why we aren't doing it differently."

Though he has not been engaged in the struggle to defend conscientious objectors for many years, Musil says that the fundamental problems he wrote about in The Nation in 1973 have scarcely changed at all:

The process for being discharged as a conscientious objector has gotten easier, but it is by no means easy. You have to demonstrate an opposition to all wars based on deeply held religious, moral or philosophical beliefs. But that process, in the 1970s and today, is entirely class-based. I wrote the equivalent of a Master's thesis for my conscientious objector statement. You have to show psychiatrists you aren't crazy. It's like applying to graduate school. If you're a working class kid, can you articulate these extremely complicated opinions or emotions to a bunch of people who really want you to go to war? Can you do that when you're already in the field?

People are intimidated. There is this little final prejudice that people in the military are considered volunteers - you sign up, take an oath. So how can you possibly not want to participate in war? The very simple idea that either seeing war up close and personal or observing its effects and hearing about it from every buddy in your unit might turn you against the war, it's just not conceivable to some people.

The return of Bowe Bergdahl represents for the United States one of those most squandered and therefore hated things: a teachable moment. As far as I can tell, only two twitterers - one of which was The Weekly Standard's literary editor, Philip Terzian - have noted that the pronunciation of the surname of our latest Hester Prynne is the same as the pronunciation of that of an earlier one guilty of nearly the same "crime." Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the son of a German immigrant and a wealthy playboy aviator in Philadelphia, evaded Wilson's draft before being nabbed by bounty hunters in 1920 and imprisoned on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. He soon escaped and fled to Germany and lived in peace for many years, before handing himself over to American authorities in 1939 rather than risk being drafted into the Nazi army. Released from prison in 1946, he was packed off to an asylum where he lived the rest of his days before dying in 1966, "demented and forgotten," as a Philadelphia history blog puts it. Surely, 100 years after the beginning of the war Bergdoll sought to avoid, we live in a civilization that can afford to be more creative in its ideas about what to do with those who do not wish to plug slugs into human flesh and call it the promotion of democracy. Some of us, at least, would like to think so.

[Richard Kreitner edits The Nation's archives blog, "Back Issues." Curious how we covered something? We're on it: Twitter: @richardkreitner.]

Copyright c 2014 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by Agence Global.

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Warmonger Media Storm Against Saving Sgt. Bergdahl Shows Why We Have So Much War

by Robert Naiman
June 5, 2014
Daily Kos

If you want to understand why it's the case that on the one hand, the U.S. public and the majority of Congress turned against the war in Afghanistan a long time ago, and yet on the other hand, it's been so hard to end the war, this week's warmonger media storm against the diplomatic rescue of U.S. prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been very instructive.

It's been known for years that a key step towards ending the war would be exchanging five Taliban prisoners of war at Guantanamo for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl.

There has never been any serious dispute of the case that this would be a key step towards ending the war. I challenge anyone to find a counter-example to my claim.

The political forces that are trashing the deal to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl are the same political forces that got us into the Iraq war. They are the same political forces who want to keep the Afghanistan war going indefinitely. They are the same political forces who want to keep the Guantanamo prison open indefinitely.

Again, I challenge anyone to provide a single counterexample of someone in Congress who voted against the Iraq war, or who has been a leader in trying to end the war in Afghanistan, or who has been a leader in trying to close the Guantanamo prison, who is now trashing the diplomatic deal to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.

So, you might think, that if it's obvious that the prisoner exchange was a key step towards ending the war, then the majority of the population who have long been telling pollsters that they think the Afghanistan war should end would see this as a slam-dunk: exchange the prisoners and end the war. And therefore, the prisoner exchange should have been relatively uncontroversial.

Recall that when the last U.S. soldiers left Iraq in 2011, there was an attempt by Republican warmongers to stoke public outrage. It went over like a lead balloon. The public was done with the war, and wanted the soldiers to come home.

But that's not how it has played out in this case - at least, that is not how it has played out so far.

Instead, there's been a warmonger media storm, that has confused a lot of Americans about the essential fact that this is a key, necessary step towards ending the war - the result that the majority of Americans have long said that they want.

I know this from my own personal correspondence. Just Foreign Policy put up a petition at MoveOn backing the diplomatic deal to rescue Bergdahl. So far, there are about 14,000 signatures on the petition. For comparison, a recent petition we did backing Rep. Peter Welch's letter urging President Obama to resist pressure to transfer manpads to Syrian insurgents also got about 14,000 signatures. So, among our core base of people who support diplomacy and want to prevent more war, our level of support has been about the same.

What's different is my correspondence. I'm getting a fair bit of hate mail from people claiming that Bergdahl is a "traitor" (not true, as far as we know) or that he caused the deaths of U.S. soldiers (also not true, as far as we know.) Some of these people write things like, "I want to end the war and close Guantanamo too, but..."

Here's the good news: we can turn this around. I got similar hate mail a year ago, when we pushed back on the media storm that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was a "traitor." (Isn't it sad how glibly some people throw that word around?) Today, the climate has decisively changed. There are certainly still people who bash Edward Snowden, but you don't find people today saying, "I want to end NSA blanket surveillance, but Edward Snowden is a traitor."

Similarly, I predict, we can now get people who want to end the war in Afghanistan and to close the Guantanamo prison to understand and accept that this is a necessary step towards doing so, and to stop repeating Fox News talking points. Sooner rather than later, people who want to end the war will understand that trashing the diplomatic deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl is a Republican warmonger thing. And when we can confine trashing diplomacy to end the war to the Republican warmongers - as trashing diplomacy with Iran was confined to the Republican warmongers - such trashing will become harmless, and ending the war can proceed.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went to the Senate floor and gave a speech strongly defending the Administration's diplomacy to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl and denouncing Republican critics as hypocrites. If we can get enough Democrats to #StandWithReid, we can close the prison and end the war.

[Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.]