Opinion: Disillusionment and Moral Injury: The Curious Case of Bowe Bergdahl

10 June 2014

Matthew Beard is a Research Associate with the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia. This opinion piece was originally published on ABC Religion & Ethics (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/06/03/4017907.htm).

As United States Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl begins the long road of rehabilitation after five years as a prisoner of war, stories are beginning to emerge regarding the nature of his abduction. However, seeking to label Bergdahl as "deserter," "traitor" or "hero" overlooks the nuanced lessons this case can teach us about the psyche of the modern soldier.

Bergdahl's capture, imprisonment and recent release has prompted a number of stories questioning his moral character and suggesting his capture was the product of desertion.

On 30 June 2009, Bergdahl is alleged to have - literally - walked away from a war of which he no longer approved. In abandoning his platoon and his professional duties, Bergdahl did, as a matter of fact, become a deserter. However, the use of the morally loaded concept of desertion circumvents any genuine analysis of what Bergdahl's actions might say about his character, the military he served, or the circumstances surrounding his now widely-known desertion.
In a Rolling Stone article in 2012, the late Michael Hastings profiled Bergdahl, "America's Last Prisoner of War." The story paints the picture of a man whose only desire was to be a capable, proficient warrior. His fellow soldiers recount stories of the intensity with which he trained and prepared himself - intensity that eventually ostracised him from his peers. His intensity was not limited to physical training, either. Hastings notes that Bergdahl could frequently be found poring over maps, military handbooks, or an introductory ethics reader in his possession.
However, Bergdahl's aspirations to becoming a good or effective soldier were allegedly disappointed by the lack of professionalism of his peers, an operation which left his platoon stranded in the mountains of Afghanistan for five days, and - significantly - the disconnection between what he had believed his mission to be and what his actual experience of war had been. Hastings cites an email from Bergdahl to his parents (which remains unauthenticated) that describes his dismay at the perceived arrogance of the American mission in Afghanistan.

"These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live."

The belief that one's cause is not a morally good one has been argued to be complicit in a condition known as "moral injury," described by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay as "the soul wound inflicted by doing something that violates one's own ethics, ideals, or attachments." For Bergdahl - who, Hastings observes, was home-schooled in the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas and was "philosophical about perceiving ethics" - the mounting evidence against moral justifications for the war he fought may have been greater than most.

Might this alone have led to his desertion? Perhaps not, but it is likely to have been a matter of personal shame and moral anguish. Philosopher Nancy Sherman chronicles the tale of a Vietnam veteran's moral trauma in the face of his complicity in the injustice of that war. The veteran in question "can't psychologically or morally fully separate himself from the war he fought." Despite having conducted himself well, he returned home to crowds who jeered and called him "murderer" and "baby-killer" despite his having done neither. The experience of this veteran is one of being "tainted" by the injustice of his war, resulting in a sense that "cleansing and purification seem impossible."

Might Bergdahl have felt a similar sense of taint? It certainly seems possible. Especially implicated in a war in which he witnessed not only bumbling bureaucracy, but outright evil. In an event Hastings describes as "formative, possibly traumatic," Bergdahl witnessed an Afghani child being run down by an American armoured truck. For a young man who allegedly travelled overseas "to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves," such an event may well have generated feelings of deep-seated taint and - an emotion Bergdahl describes himself as feeling - shame.

In his book The Moral Warrior, Martin Cook describes the importance of soldiers retaining a coherent sense of professional purpose within their deployments. Cook notes that a loss of professional purpose can threaten the very identity of the soldier by undermining his or her self-understanding "because the reasons for ... deployments do not clearly link up to the moral core of professional self-understanding." For Bergdhal, who had strived for so long to perfect his skills and prowess as a warrior, the disconnection between what had personally motivated his war and what he actually ended up fighting for appears to have generated a powerful sense of disillusionment.

From disillusionment regarding cause it is not so far to a "betrayal of what's right," which Shay describes as the catalyst for moral injuries. In an empirical study of moral injury, clinical psychologist Brett Litz and his co-authors add more depth, explaining that "moral injury is created through "perpetrating, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations." In Bergdahl's case, not only might he have felt complicit in transgressions through his participation in a war he felt to be unjust, but in directly witnessing the death of an innocent child at the hands of United States troops, Bergdahl was exposed to potentially morally injurious events.

In this regard, Bergdahl was not unique. Many soldiers are exposed to traumatic events such as these, and although they suffer greatly as a result, few others have deserted in the manner of Bergdahl. Surely, then, his moral character is still implicated?

Possibly. However, as Nancy Sherman notes, most soldiers have a powerful reason to continue fighting even once it becomes clear to them that their cause is not a just one: camaraderie. A number of conversations with military instructors, servicepersons and academics all reveal the same anecdote: most soldiers who serve multiple tours of duty are motivated, not by the nobility of the cause, but by the love they hold for their fellow soldiers.
"The rationale to stay at war, as we know all too well from our engagement in Iraq, can shift over time, be more or less rooted in fact, be more or less responsive to the realities on the ground. Cause, unlike camaraderie, can erode a soldier's morale. What remains the central battle motivator in most wars is care for buddies and the knowledge that they care for you."

Bergdahl, unlike most military personnel, felt no fondness or loyalty to his fellow soldiers. In part, this was his own doing and he can be implicated to the extent that this is true. However, in part he was also victim to the decreasing recruiting standards of the American military. Fighting two wars, the United States was forced to lower the recruitment thresholds, issuing waivers to allow many who would not otherwise have been accepted to enlist.

Aspiring to be an elite soldier in a platoon that was satisfied with its current status, Hastings described Bergdahl not as feeling supported by buddies, but as "shackled to a bunch of goof-offs" who "he didn't think ... were competent to fight." Thus, it seems Bergdahl had less reason than most disillusioned soldiers to stay.

So he deserted, believing himself able to make his way through the Afghani mountains and into Pakistan. He almost certainly overestimated his abilities and did violate his professional duties - for these things he is implicated and worthy of blame. However, to the extent that the military environment he was surrounded by, the dwindling professionalism of his platoon, the disconnect between what he believed he would be doing and what he was actually assigned to do, and the disillusionment about the moral justification for the entire war served as catalysts for Bergdahl's likely moral injury, taint, shame and disillusionment, the United States military is implicated alongside Bergdahl. His desertion is his crime, but the mitigating factors are substantial and few are of his own making.

Disillusionment is a powerful enemy to military morale. War and military service can be exhilarating, empowering and thrilling - an aspect that our current Australian Defence Force recruitment advertisements emphasise. But it can equally be harrowing, boring and traumatic. We do a grave disservice to future recruits by sweeping the negative aspects of military service - the possibility of physical or moral trauma, the complex interaction between conscience and obedience, and the practical realities of warfighting - under the rug.

If we are to avoid future Bergdahls, or at least avoid being equally implicated alongside him, we owe our future soldiers a frank and honest appraisal of what war consists of, and how it might truly be experienced.

MEDIA CONTACT
Hannah Guilfoyle: Tel (02) 8204 4141; hannah.guilfoyle@nd.edu.au