Bowe Bergdahl, the 'Universal Soldier' and the True Cost of War
Reading about Bowe Bergdahl in the papers since his release from captivity on May 31, made me think of another soldier, whose memorial service I attended on June 9. Jack had been in Special Forces for many years. He had learned Arabic and Farsi as part of his training, which included joint training with the British, the Saudis, the Australians, and others in parts of Africa he didn’t talk much about.
He did not serve in Afghanistan, but he was in both of the Iraq wars. From the time of the first Iraq war, the one that George H. W. Bush had the good sense to end as soon as its measured purpose – driving Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait – had been accomplished, Jack had neurological symptoms associated with what came to be called Gulf War Syndrome.
By the time of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, Jack had had surgery to relieve a back injury suffered in training. Jack had not been released for full duty when he and his Special Forces unit was sent into northern Iraq to protect artillery forces who were making their contribution to “Shock and Awe” against a woefully inadequate group of Iraqi troops. Jack was sickened by the arcade-like glee that the artillerymen took in killing essentially helpless Iraqis who were trying to defend their country against the might of the United States – overwhelming force, as Colin Powell called it. But Jack had a different perspective. He said, “It wasn’t war; it was slaughter.”
Both before and after the start of that second Iraq war, Jack was in significant pain that led him to over-use the drugs he had been prescribed. He came back early from Iraq because of his pain and the need to use strong drugs to control it. A few weeks after his return, he once again needed back surgery. I accompanied him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (now closed) and spent three days with him, trying to help him reduce his reliance on the pain medicine that had once again been prescribed.
During our time together, I watched his restless sleep, interrupted frequently by startle responses to a variety of sounds. His sleep problems were compounded by an enormous intake of coffee to stay awake from the drowsiness caused by the pain killers. He experienced flashbacks, nightmares, detachment, emotional numbing, agitation, anxiety, irritability, and occasional outbursts of anger – all symptoms of PTSD.
When his daughter was born nearly nine months after his return from Iraq, I called him to report the event. He was stationed hundreds of miles away from his wife and was not there for the unexpectedly early birth. His first question to me was “Does she have all of her fingers and toes?” Jack thought that his DNA had been compromised by his exposure to dangerous substances during the first Iraq war and thereafter in routine military exercises. He was worried, too, that the skin cancer he suffered (that he believed resulted from his exposure to chemicals in the service of his country) would mean serious health problems for his new daughter. Fortunately, his daughter had ten toes and ten fingers, and was otherwise healthy in spite of her early arrival.
By then, Jack had spent 18 years in the military, but he had become disillusioned with the macho attitudes of fellow soldiers and the policies that had caused him and his comrades to become tools to be used in the pursuit of American hegemony around the world. While it was easy to get him to do dangerous and morally repugnant things at age 18, he was no longer a young, impressionable teenager anxious to show the world what he was made of. He had learned about the hypocrisy that runs through our government, today’s military, and all those who proclaim a faux patriotism at the expense of the young and those trapped into a duty they had not anticipated when they decided to serve their country as a soldier.
Jack’s medical problems, his characteristic PTSD symptoms, and concomitant prescription drug reliance had made him a pariah to his commanders. The Army had used him up, permanently weakened his body, and damaged the core of his being. Jack’s chain of command tried to dishonorably discharge him as his problems became apparent. Through the help of an excellent civilian military lawyer and the efforts of his family, Jack left the military with a veteran’s pension.
Gradually, his life became marginally better. He became enthusiastic again about architecture, home improvements, and trying to find some normalcy. But this did not last. The powerful drugs prescribed by VA doctors to treat his PTSD turned him into a zombie-like person unable to follow conversations beyond a few moments and left him in a drug stupor much of the time.
His emotions were submerged in a fog. He often fell asleep in the middle of conversations. The few productive months he had enjoyed that made it seem like he was getting better came to an end. His last two years had left him miserable. There was little joy in his life, though he tried to be a loving father to a daughter who became wise beyond her years. She decided that the military just messes people up. I have not tried to dissuade her from that view.
Apparently, this was a conclusion that Bowe Bergdahl came to, though we do not yet know for sure. The available evidence suggests that the mission in Afghanistan was too inhumane for a sane and sensitive soul to endure, or perhaps he had personal problems aside from the war. Whatever his motivation, Bergdahl appears to have walked away from it one night, either temporarily or perhaps permanently. But whatever happened led to his capture by Taliban forces and he was held in captivity for five years, where his health deteriorated.
While there is much sanctimonious and dissembling consternation in the Congress, from Democrats as well as Republicans, over the prisoner swap that sent five members of the Taliban to Qatar for a year in exchange for Bergdahl’s release, it is all much ado with very little substance. (See David Brooks, NYTimes, June 6, 2014, and a related editorial.) If the released Taliban were terrorists bent on the destruction of the US, they should have been tried long ago for their crimes. But where is the evidence that they cared one whit about the US? If evidence exists, it could have been presented in a military tribunal as befits a nation claiming to honor the rule of law, but the government failed to do so. The Taliban did not invade the US or even attack it. We did that to them and their country.
To be clear, I have no use for people like the Taliban, who use force to subdue their countrymen and base their authority on fanciful religious ideas that are Medieval in their conception and their practice. The brutality toward women that the Taliban exhibits is often sickening and always inhumane. But women have been subjugated throughout western history, as well. The Taliban are a mere throwback to a period that is a part of the history of the human species. Women have had the vote in the US for less than a hundred years. We don’t have to look too far back from here to find our own dark ages.
In a more profound sense, the US is as callous as the Taliban in its indifference to human suffering when it has goals it wants to achieve. The difference is that we kill people all over the world, while the Taliban has limited itself to Afghanistan. What we did in imprisoning hundreds of men in Guantanamo, torturing them, and brutally force-feeding those who chose not to eat rather than continue to endure constant humiliation and mistreatment, is an affront to human decency.
Of course such indecency is not limited to the US. It abounds in the world, from China, to Uganda, to the Middle East (including Israel), to Russia, to Indonesia, to India, and potentially to anywhere human beings live. Maybe human nature is improving, as Steven Pinker asserts in his book, but I am not persuaded.
As long as there are people who will agree to fight to kill others for
the whims of a nation state’s leaders, we will continue to have war
Religious extremism, militarism, greed, autocracy, misogyny, homophobia, ethnocentrism, psychopathology, and a host of other human conditions lead to unspeakable brutality, both physical and mental, against some human beings by other human beings. I can’t say which one is worse. But there are days when I can’t get the words of “The Universal Soldier” out of my mind. As long as there are people who will agree to fight to kill others for the whims of a nation state’s leaders, we will continue to have war. Technological innovations, like drones, only make matters worse, and they require (at least for now) someone sitting at a computer terminal calling the shots, both literally and figuratively.
It is insane not to protect oneself and one’s friends from attack by those who would kill and dominate others. But this, the longest war in American history, is obscene. It did not have to happen. It was a politically expedient war to start. And the Taliban did not start the war. They offered to negotiate turning over the al-Queda leadership that was in their country, but after 9/11, George W. Bush wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to attack a loathsome group like the Taliban and in the process let the perpetrators of 9/11 escape, leading to a conflagration that has lasted most of thirteen years, at enormous loss of life by the people of Afghanistan and the unnecessary deaths of thousands of US service men and women, many during the escalation (the surge) that Obama agreed to at the insistence of our military leaders.
Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization that includes those who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, decided six years ago that continuing the war in Afghanistan was wrong on several counts:
[T]here is no battlefield solution to terrorism, and any escalation of the war in Afghanistan will only serve to exacerbate the plight of the Afghan people, destabilize the region, and further the breakdown of our military . . . Iraq Veterans Against the War calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces in Afghanistan and reparations for the Afghan people, and supports all troops and veterans working towards those ends.
I am sorry that Bowe Bergdahl became trapped in a quagmire not of his making. But today’s US military, for all the patriotic nonsense that is spewed forth by many well-meaning people, is an instrument of war that serves the interest of politicians and the corporations that make money off of war. It is likely to destroy Bergdahl, just as it destroyed Jack, though in a different way. It is a multi-headed beast that destroys the “better angels of our nature.” And it has destroyed the lives of many fine Americans, who too late discover that being a “Universal Soldier” is not the way to a peaceful world.
The views of IVAW resonated with Jack and may have played a part in Bowe Bergdahl’s decisions. I wish him well as he begins a tortuous ordeal that is not likely to have a happy ending. As for Jack, who was 48 when he died, it is no consolation for those of us who loved and cared for him that it is only in death that he was able to find peace.
© Lamar W. Hankins, TexasFreethoughtJournal.net