It Should Have Been Easier for Bowe Bergdahl to Quit the Military


Bowe Bergdahl
U.S. Army

I'm generally sympathetic to those who are resistant to military discipline. My own family's un-glorious history with the U.S. military is rife with demotions, insubordination, and a generally disdainful attitude toward anything framed more firmly than a friendly suggestion. So I extend the benefit of the doubt to Bowe Bergdahl, who appears to have had a crisis of conscience during his service in Afghanistan, while recognizing that he was a volunteer—unlike say, Eddie Slovik, who was murdered by the U.S. government for refusing to fight as a conscript in a war he wanted no part of.

American troops have engaged in continuous war in Afghanistan since 2001, so nobody can claim that they don't know that military service might require actual military service. Then again, military recruiters focus on the young not just because they're physically fit, but also because they have little perspective on what they're getting themselves into. More than a few studies have found that recruiters tend to be a bit shaky on the details and potential consequences of enlisting—a choice that, at least potentially, locks enlistees into a situation with high stakes.

Even in the age of the Internet and non-stop news cycles, concepts like combat, injury, and death can be abstract concepts for an 18-year-old.

So if Bowe Bergdahl decided that the bill of goods he was sold didn't live up to the advertising—especially if he began to have moral qualms about his duties—I'm pretty sympathetic. And it's pretty clear that was the case from the messages he sent to his parents, in which he wrote:

The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.

But the military makes formal "conscientious objector" status difficult to attain for young people whose views change while they're in uniform, at least officially. (There are sometimes back-channel ways of getting out that might not be readily apparent.) The Department of Defense directive regarding the subject is a masterpiece of bureacratese, full of lengthy definitions and procedures. Among other hurdles, it defines conscientious objection as "A firm, fixed, and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, by reason of religious training and/or belief."

Morally objecting to the conflict at hand doesn't make the cut. Nor does just having had enough.

Which is a damned shame, since it might well lead to foolishness like walking off into the hills of Afghanistan under disputed circumstances. That's a stupid way to get out, though desparation sometimes overwhelms good sense. Worse, it might contribute to a disillusioned young deserter actually aiding the enemy after falling/walking into their hands, instead of just flying home.

We don't know that's what happened in Bergdahl's case. But the whole controversy, including the exchange of potentially dangerous detainees for one guy who wanted to quit, might have been avoided if there was an easy way out of military service for people who develop moral objections, or simply burn out, during the life-and-death conflicts in which they find themselves.