When it was first announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was being released by the Taliban, the American media embraced the news as a feel-good homecoming story, and the President himself made hay of the occasion, claiming that “Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.” Bergdahl’s home town organized a parade in his honor.
But then the official narrative of Bergdahl’s release began to unravel amid questions of desertion, doubts about the president’s legal authority to negotiate the exchange that led to his release, and the ramifications of releasing five terrorism suspects back into the field. Bergdahl went from “hero” to “traitor” in less than 48 hours. The parade was canceled.
What I find fascinating about stories like this is that there seems to be no middle ground for people like Bergdahl. CBS News asks, “Bergdahl: Hero or Deserter,” as if those were the only possible options. There is this narrative of war that we seem to have bought into as a society that one must be on one side or the other, that you’re “with us or with the terrorists.” We’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys, but there’s something worse than being a bad guy: being something in between. The continuum looks something like this:
The “good guys” range from snow-white to a very light gray, while the “bad guys” range from dark gray to charcoal. But in the middle, there’s a no-man’s land of pitch black, occupied by deserters and turncoats. So a guy named Bashir Haddad who fights for the Taliban is reviled by Americans, but not as much as a guy named Bowe Bergdahl who has doubts about fighting against the Taliban. Bergdahl made the mistake of straying just the right of that cozy, almost-snow-white box on the left, into Deserter territory, and God help him for having doubts about The Mission.
This conception of loyalty results in a sort of paradox, in which the worst sort of evil is the lack of complete commitment to either “good” or “evil.” I dealt with this paradox a little in Mercury Revolts, which features another well-known American who had doubts about his cause:
Benedict Arnold laughed bitterly, staring out at the moonlight reflected in the calm water. “You know why they hang traitors?” he asked.
“Um,” replied Mercury. “Something to do with loyalty, I think.”
“If an American officer is captured by the British, they treat him like a houseguest. Same thing for a British officer captured by the Americans. It’s all tea and crumpets and no hard feelings. Neither side would ever dream of executing an officer just for being on the wrong side. It’s universally considered barbaric. So why the gallows for a man who switches sides?”
“Um,” replied Mercury again. “I’m sticking with the loyalty thing.”
“Because the traitor reveals the inherent absurdity of war,” Arnold went on. “If the British are all just basically good men doing their jobs and the Americans are all just basically good men doing their jobs, then switching from one side to another should raise eyebrows no more than a man walking down the street to save a farthing on a loaf of bread. But allowing officers to change sides at the drop of a hat would make a mockery of the whole idea of war, so we create this elaborate fiction around the idea of ‘treason.’ The traitor’s only crime is to listen to his conscience rather than blindly accept the absurd contradictions of war.”
Mercury raised an eyebrow at this. “Conscience?” he asked. “Is that what you’re calling it?”
Arnold sighed heavily. “Perhaps my conscience is faulty,” he admitted. “Perhaps I’m not so much following my own inner voice as rebelling against the decrees of small-minded men. I don’t like my actions being dictated by the whims of fools.”
There’s an unsettling echo of my fictionalized version of Arnold’s words in a letter Bergdahl wrote to his parents in 2009:
It is all revolting. […] [Three good sergeants had been forced to move to another company] […] and one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team. […] [My battalion commander was] a conceited old fool. […] In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools. … The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies.
Bergdahl’s father sent back an email with the subject line “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”
The point of this post is not to make a hero or villain out of Bergdahl. After all, perhaps his conscience was as defective as Benedict Arnold’s. The point is that conscience is incompatible with the standard narrative of war. You can have people making individual, ethical decisions, or you can have an us-versus-them war. You can’t have both.
This idea also came up in the first Mercury book, Mercury Falls, in which two demons are discussing the hazards of people thinking for themselves.
“But we have a responsibility,” said Gamaliel. “We’re soldiers in a conflict that is much greater than us. If every individual soldier were to question his role in the conflict, you’d have…”
“Anarchy,” said Izbazel. “Soldiers refusing to follow orders for the sake of following orders. A military-style organization becomes impossible to maintain. War itself ultimately becomes impossible.”
And in the end, that’s what makes us uncomfortable about people like Bowe Bergdahl. As much as we supposedly hate war, what we hate even more are people who reveal that the us-versus-them narrative that makes war possible is simply an elaborate fiction. It’s a useful, comforting fiction that occasionally approximates the truth, but it’s fiction nonetheless. And that’s an unsettling realization.