Tony Norman: Bergdahl case unleashes all the hypocrites

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Once the shooting begins, war has a way of bringing out the Hamlet in even the most patriotic soldier. The allure of a great patriotic adventure is quickly replaced by the existential reality of death's proximity.

Suddenly, the prospect of dying or being maimed for life in some nameless valley far from home raises questions that never occur during the heady rush of enlistment fever: "Why am I here? Why are people I've never met trying to kill me? Is this war really necessary? If so, why are only a tiny fraction of my fellow citizens willing to fight, if our cause is as just and noble as advertised?"

For thoughtful soldiers, a titanic moral struggle over such questions is inevitable. Only those who arrive at war already bent by appalling moral compromises will fail to intuit the gross stupidity, arrogance and hypocrisy of their political leaders back home.

We don't know what Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was thinking when he allegedly wandered from his post in Afghanistan in 2009, only to be captured by the Taliban. If his intention was to desert his unit, he has had five years to regret it.

Because he told his father shortly before he was captured that he considered the war pure folly and that he was ashamed of America, he will be pilloried by those who consider conformity under all circumstances the highest patriotism, even when it is at odds with one's conscience.

The overwhelming majority of those denouncing Mr. Bergdahl as a coward, a traitor, a deserter and possible Taliban Manchurian candidate have never served a day in the military, much less a tour in Afghanistan. They have no way of knowing whether Mr. Bergdahl came by his convictions honestly or not -- nor are they willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to his critics that the very act of wandering away from his unit may itself have been the result of psychological damage Mr. Bergdahl suffered while serving his country.

Conservatives are treating Mr. Bergdahl the way anti-war protesters allegedly treated Vietnam-era American soldiers -- like they were all Lt. Calley returning home from the My Lai Massacre.

This is why rushing to judgment before Mr. Bergdahl has been fully evaluated is so immoral and hypocritical. It's possible that a sick and psychologically damaged man -- not a "traitor" -- wandered into that Taliban stronghold in 2009. His doubts about the war shouldn't be considered evidence of his lack of patriotism. Whatever his issues are, he deserves the dignity of an orderly debriefing -- not a lynching by the nation's most hypocritical chicken-hawks.

But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Much of the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the conservative caucus and in the right-wing media over Mr. Bergdahl is motivated by President Barack Obama's willingness to engage the Taliban in secret negotiations about a prisoner swap without congressional advice or consent.

Though many conservatives initially applauded Mr. Obama for freeing the ailing American soldier from his Taliban captors, the GOP hierarchy made a calculated decision to be as cynical as necessary to torpedo the administration's triumph.

When I saw Fox analyst and former Iran-Contra felon Oliver North denouncing the Obama administration for negotiating with terrorists, I knew he and his right-wing brethren were convinced that the biggest scandal of the Reagan years had already been swallowed down the proverbial memory hole.

Because Americans have such a dubious relationship with history and only the most superficial understanding of war, we tend to defer to the authority of the nearest person in uniform when it comes to issues of war and peace. Unfortunately, those so-called experts are just as partisan as the politicians who enable them to fight stupid wars in the first place.

Generals from multiple administrations appear split on the wisdom of trading five Taliban commanders for one American, but the alternative would have been to let Sgt. Bergdahl die in the Taliban's custody. If that had happened, there would have been no end to the criticism aimed at the Obama administration for "leaving a soldier behind."

It is interesting to note that during World War II, an estimated 20,000 American soldiers were tried and sentenced for desertion, but only one soldier was executed. World War II was pure hell, and no one who actually fought in it felt like a hero for doing so. That notion is the invention of Hollywood and cynical politicians.

Even a so-called "good war" had its share of doubters.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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