The night America invaded Iraq I almost had phone sex with a Warthog driver in Kuwait. I say almost because a few minutes in, the warning sirens went off and he had to stop and put on his hazmat suit in case Saddam was using his chemical weapons. That kind of killed the mood.
This adventure was made all the more bizarre in that my friend and I didn’t have that kind of relationship before that day, and we never did after, but in that moment, my friend was in extremis. He had just made his first kill.
We’ll call him Kelly, short for Kellogg, because his Air National Guard A-10 squadron came from Battle Creek, Michigan, where they make Kellogg cereal. A lot of young men become military pilots because they want to be Tom Cruise in Top Gun, but Kelly joined with an eye on his future. He wanted to be a commercial airline pilot and the Guard was where he could get free pilot training.
Kelly was an oddity in his squadron, an atheist Democrat who, against regulations, kept a Hillary Clinton for Senate campaign button in his flightsuit pocket for luck. He didn’t vote for George Bush, and he didn’t believe in the legality or the necessity of the Iraq war, but he had made the devil’s bargain; in return for pilot training, he would drop bombs wherever he was told. And that night of Shock and Awe he was trying to come to terms with his new reality. He was forevermore a killer.
He didn’t use the “K” word. Those who go to war have dozens of euphemisms to choose from, and that day, Kelly said “I shacked them.”
Kelly’s target had been a civilian broadcast tower, which had a small building next to it. As he made his bombing run, he said he could see what he presumed were the workers, pouring out of that structure, running for their lives. “I shacked them,” he told me, in a voice filled with such pain that it broke my heart. There is no a good answer to that information, so I said quietly, “I’m sorry Kelly,” to which he out-and-out sobbed again,”I shacked them. I know I did.” And then he wanted to know what I was wearing.
We ask the men and women we send to war to do terrible things in our name; things so inhumane twenty-two veterans kill themselves everyday. Have you ever wondered why, when we are fed that statistic, it is never followed by a discussion of what haunts our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans so, and what we can do to change their grim reality?
We have never had a national dialogue about whether we do psychological damage by filling young patriots with the grandiose promise that when they join the military everything they do is nothing less than defending freedom in America, knowing sooner or later, like Kelly, the truth is going to flatten them. They are going to kill people who were no threat to them, and no threat to America, at least in the small picture. The Dick Cheneys and Bill Kristols of the world can sit safely above the battle considering the large-scale geopolitical advantages of such deaths, but the small picture is where our soldiers have to live.
Have we ever once looked at our recruitment rhetoric with an eye toward whether it creates unrealistic expectations of heroism that contribute to the psychological problems of our soldiers post-combat?
Kelly killed workers as they scurried for safety, dads and mothers, sons and daughters, and it broke him, at least for that moment – and he did his killing from so far away the people looked like ants. How much worse must it be for soldiers like Bowe Bergdahl who do their killing close up? When that guilt breaks them, and they kill themselves, we wring our hands and cry, “Why?” – though we already know why: they were honorable people who broke from the relentless remorse they feel for their actions. But if that same man walks away instead of eating his gun, we label him a deserter or a traitor and put him in prison.
I wonder how many soldiers who killed themselves during their tours would not have done so if they had been allowed to leave? I wonder how many American atrocities, like Sgt. Robert Bales massacre of sixteen sleeping civilians, or Sgt. Michael Barbera’s sniper attack on two Iraqi shepherd boys, would never have happened if those men had been given an “out” option?
In an all volunteer army, maybe we should consider an escape clause that doesn’t include going up the chain of command, through the very officers giving the orders that are eating away at the soldier’s sanity. Maybe we should even allow people to quit, like any other job. If the number of resignations would keep us from prosecuting an unpopular war, maybe that’s a clue it’s a war we shouldn’t be fighting.
I have been stunned by the lack of compassion being shown to P.O.W. Bowe Bergdahl in the public square, especially since his most credible accusers – the men he served with in Afghanistan – are the very men Bowe claims are the reason he walked away. Shouldn’t we at least wait to hear what Bowe has to say before we choose up sides?
Bowe Bergdahl is our American son, raised “almost off-the-grid” on a forty acre homestead in Hailey, Idaho, by conservative Christian parents. He and his sister Sky were home-schooled for six hours a day, much of it devoted to Calvinist teachings stressing morality and ethics.
“Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations.” Bowe’s father Bob Bergdahl told the late Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone. “Bowe was definitely instilled with truth.”
Ethics and morality make good men. Caring fathers. Faithful husbands. Honest businessmen. Reliable friends. But his belief in ethics and morality didn’t serve Bowe well in war.
Daily Kos reports that Bowe Bergdahl witnesses an Afghan child being run over by an Army vehicle, an act that was covered up, and for which no one was punished. That seems to be the beginning of his disillusionment. After that, Bowe lost confidence in his leaders.
Soldiers fight for their buddies, and it appears Bowe lost respect for the men he served with – the ones who are now calling him a deserter. Their big-picture mission was to spread democracy by changing Afghan hearts and minds, and he seemed to take that to heart, taking classes to learn the local dialect. But he thought the other men in his squad weren’t taking that mission seriously. He complained they used unnecessary force when dealing with civilians, and would insult and mock them, calling them “wogs” and “towelheads” in English to their faces, and laughing with one another at the “joke” the locals didn’t understand.
We know Bowe went to his father for advice on his situation, and we know Bob Bergdhal told his son to follow his conscience. It appears Bowe Bergdahl did just that. Bowe, who loved the Discovery Channel’s Man Vs Wild and thought of himself as a survivalist, thought he could find his way home. Instead, the Taliban found him. He spent five years in captivity – physically abused, according to CNN – kept in a box when he tried to escape.
Now, there is very little dispute of any of those basic facts above, but liberals have heard them and made one judgement of Bowe Bergdahl’s character and conservatives have heard them and made quite another. No doubt Obama Derangement Syndrome and Obama Defense Syndrome are at play in both of those stances, but unfair as that may be to him, we are now faced with deciding what is justice for Bowe Bergdahl.
We know for sure Bowe was once an idealistic boy who wanted to serve America. We also know something happened to disillusion him. So, do we find fault with the horrors of war that changed the soldier? Or do we punish the soldier who didn’t have what it took to withstand the horrors? Figuring out what constitutes justice for Bowe Bergdahl may be a difficult prospect. Figuring out how to prevent the next soldier from American Disillusionment Syndrome may be the easier task – if only we would take it up.
Bowe’s photo is a screenshot from CNN.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.