Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, disillusioned youth and the heavy baggage of war

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, disillusioned youth and the heavy baggage of war

By Lieutenant Colonel Paul Edgar, U.S. Army (Ret.), Best Defense guest columnist

I was fortunate to be a part of an incredible team that planned and managed operations to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl following his disappearance.  When people learn this, they promptly ask about my feelings towards Sergeant Bergdahl, the President, and many others in between.  Usually I avoid answering.  Often I want to reply, "It’s a war.  What did you expect?"  Sergeant Bergdahl’s buddies have room to criticize.  They worked their assess off to find him.  The rest of us ought to think more broadly. 

A new soldier’s path to combat and back is paved with dissonance: the first scream of a drill sergeant; the jarring awkwardness of the first firefight; the return home to a life that is not quite right, at least not for a while.  It will not be a surprise if the Army’s investigation reveals that Sergeant Bergdahl was disenchanted and left Outpost Mest intentionally.  The surprise is our shock that an American soldier navigating this dissonance could do something disappointing.

Our best war fiction reminds us that even the good wars produce more confusion and disenchantment than Medals of Honor.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim was captured by aliens.  Joseph Heller’s Captain Yossarian had the unsettling epiphany that, "If he flew more missions he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to." M*A*S*H’s Corporal Max Klinger wore a skirt and heels.  The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet to produce its definitive art.  But the first wave includes David Abram’s Fobbit.  In Fobbit, the protagonist Staff Sergeant Gooding was last seen running away from his outpost without his combat equipment.  Sound familiar?

If war fiction is not convincing, consider the dissonance of true war stories.  In one of his autobiographical passages, author Tim O’Brien describes how a close friend died arbitrarily in Vietnam, ignominiously in a field of watery feces.  I can connect a recent murder-suicide to an absurd mission that occurred in Iraq during the surge.  The mission, generated by enthusiasm and not intellect, cost one soldier his life, cost another his sanity, and cost the insurgents a few watermelons.  Our war fiction merely communicates a reality that many soldiers cannot or will not. 

Usually, soldiers experiencing dissonance do not desert or murder.  They express themselves in other ways.  In the very best cases, dark and sardonic humor provides an outlet.  Regrettably, others express themselves through less benign activities like motorcycle accidents, self-medication, and divorce. 

The Army has made progress recognizing and addressing combat-related dissonance in every stage of a soldier’s road to war and back.  Our general public, too, has improved its relationship with and reception of soldiers.  Yet despite the resourcing, effort, and meaningful sentiment, I suspect that most soldiers still overcome dissonance the old fashion way.  They grit their teeth and get up in the morning, relying on willpower rather than lessons from resilience training.

However, neither grit nor resilience training will change the fact that war is a dissonant experience that produces disillusioned youth.  As we catch our breath and sort through the aftermath of the last thirteen years, we are relearning that even sophisticated war carries heavy baggage: disastrous misreads of the local environment; missions gone tragically awry; and tax dollars scampering like cats.  Add disillusioned youth to the list.  At our very best we may reduce occurrences, but we will never stop them.  The case of Sergeant Bergdahl, generally speaking, was predictable. 

That is why I am disappointed when I read self-serving comments like those of Senator Joe Manchin, one of the first to posture himself publicly, "I think we can all agree we’re not dealing with a war hero here." Perhaps that is true.  Even so, it is not a statement worthy of senior public servants whom we expect to appreciate the nature and toll of war.  Most of us, including Senator Manchin, voiced an opinion in favor of war after 9/11.  In doing so, we also voted for a measure of disillusioned youth.

The Army is capable of investigating and making a reasonable decision regarding the actions of a twenty-eight year-old sergeant.  It does not need our advice.  Our effort is better spent preparing for the next decision to go to war.  When we make that decision, will we have remembered war’s derivative baggage?  Is the next fight worth mismanaged money, broken families, forgotten and disabled veterans, an armful of American-caused atrocities, and any number of disillusioned youth?  Perhaps it will be.  Some of them are.  In any case, we should make the decision with our eyes wide open.

For many reasons, our minds are quick to reconstruct the façade that war is all glory and that our soldiers, to the man, are Achilles.  A formidable part of the human psyche refuses to see and remember war as it is.  This self-righteous façade of war is what motivates many of the reactions against Sergeant Bergdahl.  Think soberly.  If we do not want responsibility for the derivative baggage of war, don’t go to war.  If we are not willing to bear corporate responsibility for the next Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, don’t send him. 

Paul Edgar is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He commanded 4thBattalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011-2013. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel. He currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in Middle East studies at the University of Texas.