Martin W. Bender
If you’re into podcasts you’ve probably heard of Serial. Serial is a show that in its first season explored the issues surrounding a murder trial and exploded into a phenome of low budget journalism. It draws the listener into the story of Hae and Adnan and makes them feel like fellow researchers in case. It’s excellent storytelling and very gripping.
Because the first season was so very prolific the second season had to be even more impressive. Enter Bowe Bergdahl.
This isn’t going to be a review of Serial Season 2, nor is it going to be a rant about the mysterious actions of a misguided E-5. Instead, these are the thoughts of a fellow veteran who identifies, in part, with the reported idealism of this generation’s most infamous sergeant.
I met Pix (an abbreviation of his last name) while working at UPS. Pix was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism. I identified with him immediately as soldiers do in civilian environments. He had been medically discharged from the Army and was not happy about it. I remember him telling the story of how he and a few other soldiers daydreamed of taking over their FOB and running it the way they saw fit. This, it turns out, is not an unusual fantasy among enlisted men and Bergdahl’s story sounds strangely familiar to those of us who drank in those Army Values and made them our own.
The difference between Bergdahl and Pix, myself, and every other soldier I’ve spent time talking to is that he actually acted on his fantasy. His plan was to leave his post, cause an uproar, and show up at the main camp in order to gain an audience with a general. He hoped to explain the leadership problems within his unit and accept the punishment for leaving his post. The plan is absolute lunacy.
This type of lunacy, though, is not uncommon. When pushed to an extreme position only extreme actions seem reasonable. Bergdahl likely thought his position was extreme, but there is a fundamental flaw in his planning: It violated the most basic standards of military behavior.
“I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.”
If there are equivalents to the greatest commandment of Jesus in the Army, they are the general orders. Privates in basic training say them like prayers before meals. They are recited, sung, repeated and for good reason; a soldier must be reliable. For all Bergdahl’s claims to have the best interest of his unit in mind he missed this fundamental truth.
Heinlein writes in Starship Troopers that it is the right of the soldier to complain. It is their job to do things they do not understand for the accomplishment of greater missions they will never hear of. This is why they maintain that right. They can complain all they want. What they cannot do is violate those greatest commandments. The general orders must be held higher than all perceived injustice and complaint because the general orders save lives.
Bergdahl claims he acted to save lives, but the reality is his actions cost the lives of fellow service members tasked to find him. This must never be overlooked.
During my deployment to Kuwait and Iraq our unit had leadership issues. Don’t think it is an exact correlation to Bergdahl’s situation, it wasn’t. We were running redeployment missions not patrols and while there was danger from occasional IED’s and coordinated attacks the bulk of what we did was drive. Thankfully, our entire company made it through the deployment with zero combat related injuries. That’s a success.
The leadership issues we had caused numerous complaints, but to my knowledge, there were no drastic plans to draw attention to our problems. Sure, there were IG complaints and a few people got into trouble, but for the most part, we put our heads down and continued with the mission till it was time to rotate back to reality. The best way to deal with the leadership conflicts was to stay on the road, keep on mission, turn and burn. That is precisely what we did.
Having trusted leaders is the greatest gift a soldier can receive. On our clip (or squad) we were blessed to have an experienced SSGT who took great care of us. Despite issues that may have occurred at the battalion, company, or even platoon level, our clip, led by Irish, knew we were the main priority with her.
Perhaps this is why feelings of pity arise when thinking of Bergdahl. He obviously didn’t feel like he was a priority to his leadership. No soldier should feel that way. In the service, one expects to have to do difficult things, but at the same time there is a rightful expectation that those difficult things must be done. Risk is mitigated as much as it can be. Personal differences don’t affect assignments. It seems like Bergdahl’s perception of his situation was at best flawed and at worst self-created.
It would be great if every squad could have a leader like Irish. It would be wonderful if all commanders could adequately communicate their concern for the well-being of their troops, but the real world is different from our ideals.
Idealism in the military is dangerous. Everyone has a hard time. Everyone has an image of their ideal leader. Everyone faces challenges. The question each soldier must ask is are they willing to forgo their ideals and work within the situation they find themselves? Bergdahl decided to bow out. He chose to act outside of the structure in which he placed himself. When he did that, when he violated his first general order, he abandoned that which makes soldiers different from civilians. He chose his own ideals over the ideals of the Army. That is why he must face court martial.
Like Bergdahl, I’m an idealist. Based on what I’ve heard about him from the second season of Serial my guess is that we would get along well on a personal level. I imagine if one of his leaders better fit his idealized image of military leadership his entire ordeal would not have happened, but perhaps all of the drama surrounding his experience will prompt this and the next generation of leaders to take seriously the concerns of all those under their care.
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Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein – Just so you know, this is as much a book about political theory as it is about giant space bugs. It has been required reading at a number of military academies and officer training courses. If you are interested in purchasing this book, please consider doing so through the Two Bearded Preachers affiliate link. It will help us defer the cost of hosting. Thanks.