Let us stipulate in advance that young men are often foolish. This I know because I have been both young and foolish.
Let us further stipulate that under the stress of war, foolish young men often do stupid things. This I know because I have done stupid things while a young fool under the stress of war.
Like me, Bowe Bergdahl was also a foolish young man, and under the stress of war he did a stupid thing. The stupid thing he did was to walk off his post, and disappear into the waiting arms of the Taliban. There are conflicting accounts as to why he walked away. In his own account, it had to do with what he described as “poor leadership” in his battalion. How walking away was supposed to change that is unclear, but apparently he hoped to trudge 18 miles to find a general who would listen to his objections. We can only smile at the fantasy of a general taking seriously the complaints of a PFC against his superiors.
But his second reason for leaving tells us more: he had a fantasy of becoming a Jason Bourne type character, of proving that he was the “real thing.” It is not unusual for young men—or old ones, for that matter—to fantasize about becoming action heroes. But it is stupid to act on those fantasies. It might also indicate some mental problems.
This conclusion is warranted in Bergdahl’s case, since he had first enlisted in the Coast Guard, but was discharged after only 26 days for psychological reasons. That discharge posed no impediment to his enlistment in the U. S. Army. He was a loner who preferred poring over maps of Afghanistan and studying Pashto to drinking with his comrades. He was a deeply moral young man, homeschooled in a strict Christian tradition, and the conduct of the war appalled him. He claims that before his deployment to Afghanistan, a sergeant major lectured his platoon, “I know you all joined because you want to rape, pillage, and kill. That’s why I joined. However, you need to think about counterinsurgency.” It is possible that even if this actually happened, the sergeant major was speaking ironically. But the problem with edgy humor is that not everyone always gets the joke.
Bowe did not get the joke, if such it was, and the conduct of the war troubled him more and more. In his last email to his family, he said:
We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them… I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.
His father shot back,
OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!
Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible. dad.
This is, of course, sage advice, but difficult to apply to the ambiguity of insurgent warfare and perhaps not helpful to a sensitive young man struggling with his own inner demons. It was also, possibly, the key bit of advice that convinced him to walk off base, with the intent of trudging 18 miles through enemy-held territory with Jason Bourne bravado. But he was no Jason, and he did not make it.
In the ensuing search for Bowe, six of his comrades may have died. Or they may have died much later and for different reasons. But whether they died for him or not, they certainly exposed themselves to danger to rescue him. It is for this reason that sticking to your post is considered a founding principle of military order. So the anger that some of his former comrades feel towards him is understandable, as is the imperative the Army feels to inflict further punishment on him.
But I cannot feel that way, and for a simple reason: I, too, walked off my post and into the hazard of the bush, wherein lurked a bitter and skillful enemy. I could have been Bowe Bergdahl.
It was in 1969, and I had choppered into the base at Pleiku from Cheo Reo, a corner of the Vietnamese highlands so obscure that even most Vietnamese couldn’t tell you were it was. From Pleiku I would catch an Air America flight to Tan Son Nhut airbase and a further flight to Bangkok to begin a few days of R&R. However, since we had some errands to run en route, it took longer than planed and I missed the connection. It would be three days before there was an available seat, and so I was stuck in Pleiku with nothing to do. The actual city of Pleiku was “off-limits” to Americans and the NCO club was the limit of the on-base amenities, so that’s where I ended up. And since I was the one who had planned the flight, I had only myself to blame.
It was in the NCO club that I met a young Montagnard, the indigenous people of the Anamese highlands. He suggested that instead of staying on the base, I spend a few days in his village, which was, he assured me, just on the edge of Pleiku. This sounded like a good idea at the time, so off we went on his motor scooter.
His village was not, in fact, on the edge of Pleiku, nor anywhere near the edge. As we rose higher and higher into the hills, the view of Pleiku receded beneath us, becoming smaller and smaller, until it was finally swallowed up by the forest we had entered. Ten, 20, 30 minutes went by, and it occurred to me that I was a long way from help, and had not so much as a P-38 on me for self-defense (only veterans will get that joke). Every American had a price on his head, and perhaps my “friend’s” intention was to get himself a brand new scooter. I seriously considered killing him and motoring on back to the base. It would have been so easy to reach out, grab his head, and snap it from his spine, and then I would have had a new scooter. Such are the fears, and fearsome thoughts, that arise when you fight in an alien land where no one is to be trusted.
Finally, after 40 minutes, we broke into the clearing that was his village, a collage of spacious huts built on stilts. The Jerai, the Montagnard tribe in that area, had been there for a millennium before the Vietnamese moved in from China, and were much better adapted to the climate. Their raised houses were cooler than the Vietnamese ground-level huts, and much less susceptible to the voracious, many-legged creatures that crawl across the forest floor. The men of the village all wore loincloths, and the women, or the mature ones, wore only the same ankle-length, black, homespun, straight skirts. Rather than being erotic, the bared breasts were testimony to the awesome victory of time and gravity over the feminine form. And the younger ones, perhaps infected with Western modernism, all wore blouses. I rather thought they should reverse the order, revealing the one and covering the other. But young men are like that.
In the two days in this village, I had many adventures, and saw many wonderful things. Perhaps these were the kinds of things Bowe Bergdahl imagined he would experience, rather than the horrible things that actually did happen. But for me, I was a tourist in a prehistoric wonderland. Just two of these adventures will give the flavor.
My friend did indeed have an ulterior motive in bringing me here, but it was not to sell me to the Viet Cong. Rather, it was to settle a romantic difficulty. For my friend had a slight problem: He had two wives, one over the customary limit for the Jerai, who were not, he told me, the least impressed by his formal divorce documents in Vietnamese, a language (and culture) foreign to them. My friend wanted to pawn off the first wife on me. I was willing enough, at least for a night. I suspected that an adultery would dissolve all her claims on him. However, it was not to be; she would not play. Her only intention was to regain the affections of her husband from the interloper. In affairs of the heart, she was a strict nationalist, and would accept neither foreign aid nor international development.
Word of the fiasco must have gotten around. Towards the evening of the second day, I was approached by a village elder who asked me, “Ih ma bonai?”
“No sir,” I replied, “I am not married.”
“Ahhh,” he said, brightening, “Ih ma topai?”
“Yes sir, I do drink.”
A big fire was made in the village square, and in the fading light they brought out tall, earthenware vases containing topai, the local rice liquor. Looking into the vases, the method of making this looked simple enough. Malted rice is placed between palm leaves, and the whole thing built up, layer by layer, until the vase is filled. Water is then poured over the leaves and rice, and left to ferment in the bottom. Long bamboo straws are pushed to the bottom, and the liquor is sucked up, a group of three or four sharing each vase. Those who claim to know such things say that it tastes like camel piss. I, lacking any basis of comparison, can say only that it tasted awful enough. Nevertheless, I attempted, like a good soldier, to match my fellow drinkers, pull for pull. My host, playing the matchmaker, waxed eloquent on the virtues of his daughter.
She was a slight thing, no more than 14 years old, I guessed. You could tell that she was high status because two of her upper front teeth were rimmed in gold and filled in with enamel, a lush green for one and a neon red for the other. His English and my Jerai were at about the same level, next to nil, but we managed a conversation of sorts. I was not to be concerned with her small stature, he told me, since she could carry heavy loads.
“And when you go home to She-ca-go—She-ca-go in America, right?” he asked, proud of his knowledge of American geography.
“Yes sir, Chicago is right near LA; we’re practically neighbors.”
“In She-ca-go, she will bear many children.” In her father’s view, this was the killer argument.
And so it went. And it went on and on. Now, I have worked with the Jerai, and they are a sober, resourceful, and industrious people. But when they party, they par-tay, and do so with wild abandon. Trying to match them pull for pull was likely not the best strategy, since they had more experience with topai than I did. By late night, I had to be helped off the field of battle, a casualty of war without a purple heart. It is just as well. Had I been both drunk and conscious, I might have returned to base with a 14-year-old Jerai bride, one with two enameled teeth.
The case of Sergeant Bergdahl led me to reflect how some of us, for reasons known only to God, are able to escape the worst consequences of our most foolish actions. Perhaps in some alternative universe, Bowe ends up with an Afghan wife in the mountains and I end up in a bamboo cage in the forest. It certainly could have happened in this universe. But instead, I ended up in the middle of a tribal soap opera, and Bowe ended up in a Taliban cage. And so I cannot approach his story without reflecting on my own. And as I advance into old age, the phrase that most resonates with me is: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
We train young men to act with maximum violence, and then send them to wars in which they must act with maximum diplomacy. We would not think it strange if a platoon of diplomats were clueless about how to use fire and maneuver to take out a machine-gun nest, yet we are frustrated that a platoon of young soldiers cannot maneuver in the complex streams of tribal politics. And when bad things happen, we are quick to fix the blame on the lowest level.
It is understandable that Bergdahl’s comrades, the ones who didn’t walk off their posts but were sent to find him, would be less than sympathetic to his plight. But it should be different with the officers charged with judging him. It is quite true that military discipline must be enforced. But the Army should not evade its own responsibility in accepting for service a man whose psychological difficulties were already known to them. Ah, but recruiting sergeants, like used-car salesmen, have strict quotas that must be met. And one can only wish that the Army was as scrupulous about the misdemeanors in their senior ranks as they are about the missteps of enlisted men.
I pray for Bowe Bergdahl. I pray that the Army will decide that in this case, justice is best served by compassion. I pray they will realize that he has already paid for his crimes with five years in captivity among the Taliban, and with all the problems he has had since. But in truth, my prayer is really a selfish prayer. It is a prayer for myself, and a reflection of the mystery of why some, like me, skip through life barely conscious of their own crimes, while others must pay to the last penny. It is a prayer for all the young men and women sent into strange places that have confounded our wisest diplomats while armed only with weapons of maximum lethality. And it is a prayer for our country, which can neither extricate itself from these wars nor resolve them. It can only place its young men in situations where they are bound to fail, and fail despite their own best efforts and sacrifices.
John Médaille is a retired businessman and an adjunct in the Theology Department at the University of Dallas. He is the author of two books, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace and Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective.