We Are All Bowe Bergdahl
by Michael Carson
We called it Operation Istanbul.
Initially, it wasn’t much of a plan. We wouldn’t have made it halfway to Kurdistan. But over time Operation Istanbul morphed into an arabesque our hundred-man Brigade S3 shop would have envied.
Operation Overlord was child’s play compared to Operation Istanbul.
“What about gas?” one of the privates asked, an intelligent boy from Georgia who didn’t want to be either in Iraq or back in Georgia.
“Good point,” I affirmed, showing that not only could I lead but I could listen. “We’d have to send a scout team out, maybe Robbins and O’Donnell, to distract the motor pools NCOs. Cory could fill up at least a couple tanks.”
My squad leader, who had been looking intently, even a tad angrily, at the dirt, tracing, sharp evil figures there with his boot, spoke up, ”sir, we’d need a task force to puncture the CSMs tires. He’d have the entire battalion after us by mid-afternoon. We would have to do this at least three hours before zero hour.”
The privates giggled. “Yes, maybe smash the motor pool radios? You know they’ll call in the birds.”
“Yeah, they have GPS too you know.”
“The second border will be a problem. We’d have to ditch the Humvees. We’d be a little conspicuous.”
“Some Jihadi will use it as a propaganda ploy if they found them.”
“We could blow them up once we made it the mountains.”
I nodded wisely. “And then blame it on the Kurds, ask for help from the Turks.”
“What if the Turks ended up talking? Telling the Battalion Commander?”
“I doubt they’d hand us over. Aren’t they friends with Russia?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think their friends with us. They’d probably just hand us right back.”
My squad leader would not be deterred.
“But what if they didn’t? What if we pleaded asylum?”
Now I also giggled. The idea of us trekking through the mountains, half-starved, utterly confused, looked upon with wonder by Turkish peasants, trying to explain ourselves to the Istanbul authorities, was a rather funny one. We were such a hopeless little unit, utterly without intellectual reserves but not lacking in imaginative grandeur.
I seconded my squad leader. “Right, we’ll put together a fragmentary operations order having to do with contingency operations, including but not limited to questions of asylum.”
We were joking of course. I had no intention of actually doing what we talked about and I assumed – maybe a bit naively – that my soldiers didn’t either. It was a dream of freedom. A romantic scenario of adventure and escape that became increasingly deranged the longer into the night we debated its merits. Eventually, we had a UN peace keeping force chasing us across the Galata Bridge, the Yemeni and Israeli navies struggling for control of the Persian Gulf, and the few surviving members of the platoon fighting onward through Serbia, up into Finland, and taking hostage a fishing trawler bound for Greenland. There, what was left of our tired, broken and begrimed retinue fell in the ice, glorious and forever frozen and snowy white and clean of the war.
If the initial part of our plan sounds familiar, it should, and not because Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is in the news recently, but because there is a great tradition of escapism in American war stories. Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane had many tales of Civil War deserters. First World War novelists could not wait to get to war so they could walk away from it in manly disgust. In Catch-22, Yossarian and Orr seek escape from the people trying to kill them in the ocean. Tim O’Brien wrote a whole book about a soldier deciding to walk from Vietnam to Paris called Going After Cacciato. Yet this is not unique to books about war; it is also cultural. Americans love the idea of going off the grid, facing the elements alone, throwing over the responsibilities and expectations of civility. TV shows like Survivor Man and Survivor imagine men and women alone with the elements, proving their skills and getting back to their roots. Our movies nearly always feature one man in a brainwashed society, the chosen one, who sees clearly and can save everyone else from their civilized degeneracy. Adventure companies make good money marketing pre-packaged exoticism and myths of rugged individualism. Politicians gain power preaching lies of ahistorical self-determinism to their constituencies.
So, it seems to go without saying that when faced with something even the least bit boring and enervating, most Americans would at least consider walking away. And even professional soldiers grow tired of war. Not because they are afraid but because they are romantically predisposed as the rest of us. They think the command incompetent, the unit pathetic and their continued risking of life a waste, and they imagine taking matters into their own hands, walking off to a place where the command is competent, the people inspiring and the risking of life worthwhile. Problem is, of course, that this is sheer fantasy. As we are slowly discovering with Bergdahl – whose attempt at self-sufficiency ended up making him dependent on both a significant portion of the United States military and the Taliban – war’s banality extends all the way down, defining those who try to escape as well as those who try to bring them back. Further, I would argue that not just war but modern life itself is a slog that requires the help of other people, people who will be for the most part self-interested, bumbling and boring as you, whether you like it or not. If you do try to just walk off the grid, you will fail. A stingray will stab you. The Taliban will pick you up while defecating.
But what of those who stay? Were we somehow better people for not following through on Operation Istanbul? Perhaps. I don’t think we were any less romantic. Many of us were there because we thought war might offer and escape from the grind of managerial positions and Home Depot janitorial duties. Politicians and pundits sent us to Iraq because they were bored by the endless and demeaning back and forth of weapon inspections and international law. Some of us secretly wanted to train hard and become something really romantic, like Special Forces soldiers who could grow beards, wear whatever they wanted, and hop about the world saving damsels in distress. Others couldn’t wait to get home where they could settle down into happy domestic lives with spouses and children miraculously cured of pre-deployment grievances and discontents. We decided against one fantasy in favor of a more obviously safe one: namely, just do your job, keep you head down, and hope for the best. Our romance simply took another form.
At the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance, many repeated over and over the comforting idea of “no man left behind.” Since then, much has been revealed about Bergdahl’s character, and those who disapprove of Bergdahl’s actions have refined it to the clumsier: “no man who we like as a person and approve of as a soldier left behind.” But either version is equally romantic, a way of distracting us from the obvious, not that six soldiers died looking for him, but the fact we leave men behind all the time. We left around 50,000 in Vietnam, 5,000 of them in Iraq and 2,500 in Afghanistan. Their bodies might come home, but they are not coming back, whatever their personal heroic values or lack thereof. To replace them, we have reimagined them; we have woven them into countless other romances, enmeshing their individual and utterly meaningless eviscerations by bomb or sniper bullet into another magical quilt of American fantasia; we have deluded ourselves that if we give it another year, the tide will turn, history will collapse upon itself, and the people living in a country that is not ours will love us like brothers and embrace us and those who fell fighting for them as heroes.
Operation Istanbul would have ended badly. This should not take away from the fact that Iraq did end badly. If the Bergdahl story teaches us anything it’s that escape is a powerful fantasy in war and war is a powerful escapist fantasy. But we won’t learn this. Until the romance comes full circle, until we can be feted as liberators forever and forever, an eternal return where we storm Normandy and save France until the end of time, we will pile on Bergdahl, blame six deaths on him at first, then, eventually, all the deaths and all our successive failures on him and people like him. We will blame the authors of books like Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato for teaching Americans they can walk away from wars that they cannot actually walk away from, for taking our inherent escapism and exacerbating it through counter-cultural mythologies, all the while imagining ourselves to be realists, hard thinkers, men of the world. We will, in essence, do everything in our power to deny that the insidious romanticism that inspired Bergdahl to leave his post is much the same as the one that inspires us to stay at ours.