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A Prayer for Bowe Bergdahl

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 [1], 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 [2] 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.

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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 [3] 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: [4]

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,

change_me

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 [5]. 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.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "A Prayer for Bowe Bergdahl"

#1 Comment By Kid Charlemagne On October 31, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

Thank you for this. I have found the lack of empathy for this unfortunate soldier quite depressing.

#2 Comment By cka2nd On November 1, 2017 @ 3:30 am

I second Kid Charlemagne, and add my thanks for the chuckles your own story gave me.

#3 Comment By Elias Crim On November 1, 2017 @ 9:12 am

A powerful reflection–many thanks for this, John.

#4 Comment By James Hartwick On November 1, 2017 @ 9:36 am

… 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.

Indeed. Great essay, thank you.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On November 1, 2017 @ 11:16 am

Thank you so much.
I appreciated your article but it reminds me why we need the draft. Everyone should serve their country & community in some capacity. No exceptions.
Obviously, some like Bowe Bergdahl are not cut out for military service. He should have had an alternate community service option.

#6 Comment By Arthur Granville On November 1, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

First off all it must be known that the writer of this article is a Trump-Hater and a Hillary-Lover. As a matter of fact, he went off the rails when our President was elected. I don’t know how or why the editors of “The American Conservative” allow him to write for such a good, conservative publication. Bergdahl will get exactly what he deserves. Private Eddie Slovik was executed for deserting in the Second World War. Many good soldiers and Seals were either killed or injured trying to find this foolish man. If there is a prayer for Bergdahl, it would be to request that he is touched by the Truth of what he did, and that he repents for his actions.

#7 Comment By carlS On November 1, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

Yes, I feel for this young man as well. We expect our young, idealistic men to sign up willingly and abide by a UCMJ, when their leaders don’t even abide by our Constitution and force Congress to declare war. They blame the young man for acting, in essence, antisocial, while involved in one of the most antisocial endeavors there can be. Ultimately, those in charge beyond the enlisted level bear the greatest responsibility. Declare the war, draft the soldier, provide alternative paths to service. Learn from this tragedy and grow, but ‘temper justice with mercy,’ and understand, as the writer noted, that we, none of us, is perfect before God.

#8 Comment By Rock S On November 1, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

Beautifully expressed. Thank you.

#9 Comment By Dale McNamee On November 1, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

The man in the picture, David A Crum, was the former pastor of my church, Bishop Cummins Reformed Episcopal Church in Catonsville, Maryland.

#10 Comment By Tom Laney On November 2, 2017 @ 6:49 am

God bless you John!

#11 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On November 2, 2017 @ 8:05 am

A funny, sobering, and wise essay here, John; thank you for sharing it, and thank you for your prayer. Bowe Bergdahl needs it, as do we all.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 2, 2017 @ 10:50 am

Sgt Bergdahl, has pled guilty to at least leaving his post. I am not sure why he chose not to fight. He had plenty of reasons to challenge other charges. But the military system has far more tools than even our tilted left civilian system.

In my view, having pled guilty his integrity in tact, even if doing so leaves him with a heavier burden than he should bear.

What that preserves are the other questions — that of the occupation behavior by military and civilian contractors negatively impacting the mission of the invasion – the least of which would be leaving the scene of an accident at worst needless or reckless homicide.

#13 Comment By b. On November 2, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

“First off all it must be known that the writer of this article is a Trump-Hater and a Hillary-Lover.”

Good thing, then, that your keen observation takes nothing away from the power of his words, but plenty from that feeble response of yours.

The word of the day is “selbstgerecht”.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 2, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

“I appreciated your article but it reminds me why we need the draft.”

At let a healthy discussion on the question — echo.

#15 Comment By Nick On November 2, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

This is a thoughtful commentary, but one thing struck me. You went up into the mountains out of curiosity and in search of adventure. Foolish, perhaps (or not; both are admirable traits).

Berghdal has really no explanation for the desertion of his post. Other than to claim, vaguely, that he set out to alert his superiors to problems (by heading in the wrong direction; orienterring no longer being taught in basic training, apparently).

Your motives and his lack any obvious degree of parity.

As somebody who has never served in the military, however, I leave these things in the hands of those who are serving.

#16 Comment By David Smith On November 3, 2017 @ 1:04 am

Moving and beautifully written. Thank you, Elias, for sending it on to me.

#17 Comment By Bryan Osgar On November 3, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

Well said…

#18 Comment By Charlieford On November 4, 2017 @ 12:06 am

Thanks, Arthur Granville, for giving us Moscow’s take on the topic. No thanks for being so poor at being an American.

#19 Comment By mrscracker On November 4, 2017 @ 10:20 am

EliteCommInc,
I’m more of a pacifist than a warmonger but I’d like to see young people of all backgrounds serving their country thru community service of some kind. Or military service if they’re cut out for that.

#20 Comment By Wizard On November 4, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

Arthur Granville – No one was killed looking for Bergdahl. I don’t know exactly where this vicious fairy tale started, but it needs to end.
Given his history of psychological problems, Bergdahl never should have been in the Army, much less in Afghanistan. (Not to mention the fact that the US military should have long since been out of Afghanistan.) Because of our endless war, the Army was too eager to latch onto any warm body. Now lots of people are eager to make a mentally ill person a scapegoat for the failures of American foreign policy, and I find it disgusting.

PS: Not a vet, but I do get the P-38 reference. (Spoiler alert: in American usage, a P-38 is a small tool designed to be carried in a pocket and meant for opening ration tins. In other words, it’s a can opener.)

#21 Comment By Mark On November 4, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

So, you were young and stupid once…and that makes desertion in front of the enemy OK? Whether or not his desertion cost lives is irrelevant. Whether or not you (as was I) were young and stupid is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that an idiot military judge agreed with you that the “poor boy child” suffered enough when he walked into an enemy camp and they didn’t offer him a king’s palace. I find it hard to hide my contempt for your and the judge’s views that he deserves less than 20 years hard labor at Leavenworth. In the military, it’s not about you, it’s about not letting down your brothers in arms. Bergdahl did that in spades. And yes, I served 20 years in the military, and still serve as a civilian.

#22 Comment By George Ertel On November 4, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

I saw little connection between the author’s experience and the deserter’s. But i enjoyed the former. I too have visited a Jarai village, tho mine was maybe 10 minutes outside Pleiku. Altho no one tried to get me married, they did try to get me drunk. I thought the rice wine was very good. Or good enough, anyway. The practice was to suck enough to lower the surface below a short stick suspended across the rim of the jar or vase as the author calls it. Then youd point to another drinker and pass him the straw to drink your second “stick.” He would do the same. I still wear the bracelets they gave me, and the jar is on a potshelf in my kitchen. Fond memories from an otherwise difficult year. But back to the subject of tbe article: Theres no similarity between partying with a Jarai and deserting to the Taliban, and the Jarai have nothing in common with the Taliban. But I’m glad the author found an opportunity to tell his story.

#23 Comment By VietVetBob On November 4, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

I too was that foolish young man who walked into the jungle with a young boy to buy some weed from him. I’ve often marveled at the pure luck I’ve had in my life that has allowed me to be as successful as I am and thought perhaps there IS an alternative universe where I got caught smuggling that dope out of the country and faced a firing squad for it since the penalty for such an act was death. Or captured by the Cong and tortured like McCaine. Your article tied my story to Bo and yours in a way that I can’t be the first to cast a stone at him. I’m glad that his punishment was measured with some compassion and not the blind hatred of our President who never faced such circumstances as war.

#24 Comment By MEOW On November 6, 2017 @ 6:55 am

We take young men and women and put them in harm’s way. We disrupt their lives in every way imaginable. War is the ultimate stress point. If the warmongers had to fight these wars, there would be no wars. There should have been trials after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Those who pushed for war on lies should have served time in jail. We more or less won – so scrap that idea. Until the warmongers are held accountable or we lose a war, we will never have peace.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 7, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

“I’m more of a pacifist than a warmonger but . . .”

You will get no argument from me.

And in my view, I definitely sense a softer side of you —-

I appreciated your comments about Mr Smalls. Though I wonder, I don’t think every African American must be so exceedingly gracious to e worthy of fair treatment or their due a citizens.
___________________

(Spoiler alert: in American usage, a P-38 is a small tool . . . it’s a can opener.)

Laughing, geez that is old school. I remember when I was a kid in Kitzegen, and discovered the boxes of see rations stored in basement closets — maybe raided is a better word.

I appreciated your clarity on the matter of deaths resulting from the search.