Bowe Bergdahl and 'moral injury': What if 'right and wrong' crumbles?

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had deep reservations about how the US mission in Afghanistan was being carried out. When a soldier's sense of right and wrong is shaken, the effect can be devastating, military ethicists say.

This image shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2010. Allegations that he deserted his unit in Afghanistan have prompted questions about the different ways soldiers deal with disillusionment.

Some of the growing ire against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – with headlines wondering “Was he worth it?” – has softened in recent days. 

New reports have generated some measure of compassion for the American soldier. Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured after trying to escape his captors and kept for long stretches of time in a dark cage, according to The New York Times. Bergdahl also bristles when he is not called “private,” the Times reports, telling military psychologists that five years of captivity means he did not go before any promotion boards, and therefore has not earned the higher rank of sergeant. 

Even fellow unit members who have argued that Bergdahl is no hero and launched a Facebook page to that effect have stepped back from charges that he was directly responsible for the deaths of “six to eight” fellow soldiers, as has been widely reported.

“Members of this online community can confirm by first-hand account that 3 of the 1-501 KIAs [killed in action] did not die while on direct missions to recover Bowe Bergdahl,” Jack Kessna, a member of Bergdahl’s unit and an administrator for the Facebook page, wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Still, a number of reports strongly indicate that Bergdahl deserted his unit, a crime with serious consequences under US military justice. Is there any defense for that? 

When Sgt. Robert Bales was taken into custody in 2012 for killing 16 Afghans, including women and children, one of the first questions analysts tended to ask was whether his actions were the result of post-traumatic stress. That was also the (ultimately unsuccessful) basis of Bales’ criminal defense. He was sentenced last August to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in order to avoid the death penalty.

Most troops will never intentionally kill innocent civilians, as Sergeant Bales did, but war will cause some to grapple mightily with their decision to become soldiers. It is hard to know how even the most psychologically healthy troops will respond to their experience of war, military psychologist say, which is why it is so important to weigh carefully the consequences of waging it.

These issues have sparked a relatively new area of research among military ethicists known as “moral injury.” It emerges from experiences when “you apply your judgment of right and wrong to an experience and find that your expectations of ‘what is right’ clash jarringly with reality,” writes Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, who presented what has become a widely-discussed paper on the topic last month at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College Ethics Symposium.

Bergdahl complained of disillusionment with how the US was waging war 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,” he wrote in an e-mail to his parents, according to a Rolling Stone article published in June 2012.

“In his own case, Bergdahl might have indeed been disillusioned,” says Nancy Sherman, who served as the inaugural distinguished chair in ethics at the US Naval Academy and wrote “The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.” 

“The most loyal soldiers, if they are at all reflective, have to wonder if the mission was clear, did the counterinsurgency strategy work, what are the lasting effects of a stable peace?” she says.

Bergdahl diligently studied counterinsurgency, reading “Three Cups of Tea,” about the effort to educate Afghan girls – a book recommended to troops by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and tutoring himself in the local language. He was conscientious enough about these efforts, often to the exclusion of socializing with his fellow soldiers, that he was derisively considered a “leadership’s pet” by some in his unit, according to the Rolling Stone article. 

He had long been interested in questions of ethics, studying religious thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine when he was home-schooled as a boy, and reading Kant, Hume, and Aristotle during his time as a soldier. “Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations,” his father told Rolling Stone. “He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics.”

The war in Afghanistan appealed to Bergdahl because he was interested in helping Afghan villagers and “the whole COIN [counterinsurgency] thing,” his father said, according to Rolling Stone. 

At his small outpost in Afghanistan, he spent as much time with Afghan troops as he did with his fellow US troops, some soldiers in his unit report. 

Bergdahl also reportedly felt frustrated that his unit wasn’t aggressively pursuing insurgents who were targeting local schools. It’s a sentiment shared by many soldiers in America’s most recent wars, says Dr. Sherman, who has counseled troops. “I’ve heard that comment so often.”

Moral injury often involves these sorts of nagging doubts, she says.

The term was popularized by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in his landmark 1994 book, “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.” In his work with Vietnam veterans, Dr. Shay argued that most veterans can recover from “horror, fear, and grief” once they return to civilian life, so long as their sense of “what’s right” has not been violated.

“Some people will have moral pangs and anguish with regard to, ‘Is this a good war? Is the war that I’m fighting just?’ and not only, ‘Is it just?’ but ‘Is it pragmatically possible to come out of here as something of a winner, with a better peace afterward, and a better future for the people?’ ” Sherman says. 

However, if they come to believe it is not, some soldiers may ask themselves, “ ‘Why aren’t I a conscientious objector?’ If you go to war without moral protest – if you go with a lot of doubts and you put the conviction about the justice of war in the hands of a commander-in-chief or Congress – and yet you’re not in agreement, that’s on your conscience because you’re holding the gun.”

Not all soldiers have these thoughts or act on them, Sherman adds. “Most of us have moral quandaries without acting on them.” 

The military is built on order and discipline, which includes following orders and not deserting posts. And good leadership and training is meant to help troops grappling with these qualms remain good soldiers. “Command climate is the backbone of the moral climate of the unit,” Sherman says. 

Bergdahl complained about the leadership in his unit, which was plagued with problems, according to Army reports. The only officer at his outpost had been replaced by a “[dirt] bag” sergeant, Bergdahl wrote to his father, and “three good sergeants” in his unit had been transferred. “The few good sergeants are getting out as soon as they can,” he added in an e-mail cited by Rolling Stone, “and they are telling us private to do the same.” 

Shortly before he disappeared, Bergdahl wrote to his father about “the horror of the self-righteous arrogance” with which he believed the war was being fought, and he spoke about seeing a child run over by a US military vehicle, an incident that has not been verified by independent reporting. “We are making fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding that we are insulting them,” he said.

His father, Bob Bergdahl, offered his son some advice, according to an e-mail he shared with Rolling Stone. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore one’s conscience,” he wrote. “Stand with like-minded men when possible.”

He added, “it is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands.”

This is precisely what Bergdahl will one day soon be called upon to provide. For now, the US military is not commenting on his story, Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary said in a statement. “Our focus remains on providing him with the care he needs.”

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