The news that the most powerful organization in the known universe, the United States military, intends to focus its coercive mechanisms on a frightened, sensitive, traumatized young man, Bowe Bergdahl, has elicited howls of delight from that section of our public arena leased at below-market prices by the guild of belligerent cowards.
Back Issues is a blog about The Nation’s archives, but one would need a magazine much older than 150 years to find archival evidence of a time when such views had the merest claim to morality, not to mention, as the guild so often and so tediously does, piety.
“I am shocked at the concerted effort led by pro-war elements to pillory this guy, rather than offer serious compassion,” Robert Musil, who wrote an article on Vietnam deserters for The Nation in 1973, told me last year. “Where is all that rhetoric about ‘we support our troops’? He has suffered a lot, as have others. Where is the understanding, the compassion, the humanity? I frankly think that’s the proper response to an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.”
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After I wrote that post, I was contacted by Rory Fanning, a former US Army Ranger in Afghanistan who served in the same unit as Pat Tillman. Fanning kindly sent me a copy of his book, Worth Fighting For, published last November by Haymarket. It is a profoundly moving memoir about his trek across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, but more importantly it is a thoughtful, historically literate and often hilarious account of Fanning’s effort to forge a new relationship with a country he worried he had betrayed and had been betrayed by: disturbed by what he saw in Afghanistan, Fanning briefly went AWOL. He likely would have suffered the same fate that Bergdahl faces had not imperial stupidity, incompetence and lying saved him at the last moment. Preoccupied by the fallout from Tillman’s death and the attempted cover-up to prevent disclosure that it was caused by friendly fire, military authorities allowed Fanning to leave their custody without charges.
Fanning returned home and a few years later embarked on his transcontinental walk, seeking (and ultimately finding) a more profound connection to the American people, past and land than he had thought possible when he was growing up.
(I cannot recommend the book highly enough.)
My first reaction upon hearing the news that Bergdahl would be charged with desertion was to unfurl a string of expletives. My second was to get Fanning on the phone.
“Clearly,” he began, “the main reason they’re going after him is because they don’t want to be responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay that they owe him. I find that ironic, as they’ve been giving millions to warlords, throwing away trillions since 2001.”
Indeed, The New York Times’ otherwise somewhat mysterious suggestion that “there appears to be little desire to see him serve time” makes a lot more sense if you reason, as Fanning does, that they are only charging him to avoid having to cough up the back pay.
“The evidence against him that he’s responsible for the deaths of six soldiers is tenuous at best,” Fanning continued. “But the bigger point is the fact that the entity to blame for these deaths is the US military, for sending these soldiers into a war that should never have happened. The Taliban surrendered months after the initial invasion. But our politicians wanted blood.”
Fanning feels for Bergdahl. “Anyone who has been in Afghanistan could clearly see that the US had nothing to do in that country,” he told me. “We were little more than pawns in village disputes most of the time.”
“To be honest with you,” Fanning said, “we need a million more Bowe Bergdahls. Anybody who has any degree of common sense or moral fortitude would say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not gonna fight this war.’”
Fanning told me, as Musil had last year, that it is not at all easy or in some cases possible to declare yourself a conscientious objector once you are in war.
“I could totally relate to this guy,” he said. “I consider him a hero. To kill somebody for a cause you don’t believe in is potentially worse than being killed yourself, because those scars last forever. Just walking off the battlefield as Bergdahl did seems like an easier route than seeking conscientious-objector status.”
Why the wingnut feeding frenzy?
“It’s a lot of fear-mongering to prop up this state of perpetual war,” Fanning concluded. “Recruitment is down. People are realizing we’re not fighting for freedom or democracy, but for empire. They have to make an example out of someone like Bowe Bergdahl.”