By Guest Contributor, Chris Field
I found myself nodding in agreement while reading Amy Bushatz’s column, Dear Bowe: I’m Embarrassed That I Cried for You in which she described her growing disenchantment with the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap. Bushatz lamented that her initial enthusiasm for the recovery of POW Bergdahl gave way to a simmering pique when a more complete picture about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s “disappearance” and his eventual return to American forces became evident.
From the start, there were a number of Facebook posts responding to the news that were hardly ambivalent. Many were overjoyed. But many more were outraged. They wanted this guy fragged. Initially, I was alarmed that veterans were so openly hostile toward Bergdahl’s recovery.
I wanted to buy into the idea that we got our noble native son home and that in the end, justice prevailed. I too wanted to wave the flag. I had a silent chant of “U-S-A” bubbling up inside me. I looked upon the POW-MIA flag hanging in my garage with gratification mixed with sadness. Where we had failed POWs in the past, I had a sense that this time we had finally gotten it right. Our soldier was coming home. Initially I thought those who derided this “deal” were just your typical online cranks, out to stir the pot and spew their sewage.
…then things changed.
I will first say that if I am wrong about any of this or am relaying incorrect accounts of Bergdahl’s falling into treacherous hands and his subsequent retrieval, I’ll be the first to admit it. But as it stands right now, the volume of disapproval about the prisoner swap and denigration of Bergdahl by just about everyone (soldiers, politicians, pundits) has grown ever since this story broke.
But throughout this whole Bergdahl ordeal, I think that one of the Army’s core values demands a closer look.
Loyalty. What is it, really? At first glance it suggests something like faithfulness. It is defined as adherence and allegiance to a person, a group or an institution. We speak of loyalty as a virtue. We overlook many personal flaws in someone as long as they are loyal to us. We all have those people and things that we prioritize in our lives which, even if good sense says otherwise, take precedence over other things.
Loyalty emphasizes principle over prudence or gratification.
Sometimes our loyalty to, say, a person is a choice: I chose to marry my wife, and I am loyal to her. She has earned my loyalty. Even though certain things might be more appealing at times, loyalty and duty usually carry the day. “Would I like to join the guys for a weekend in Vegas or fly Space-A to Germany and drink in Oktoberfest cheerfulness?” Why, of course I would. But with the wife and kids at home, loyalty wins out.
Sometimes, loyalty is a matter of circumstance. I grew up in Chicago (by chance), but it could have been otherwise. And even though I haven’t been in Chicago in years, I am still loyal to my Bears and Cubs. Did they earn my loyalty? Have they ever done anything for me? The short answer is no. I am loyal to those teams because the circumstances of my life placed me in Chicago and I grew up watching them. After all, like it or not, sometimes loyalty is terribly unfounded and irrational. Sometimes there are no good reasons why we are loyal to a person or thing.
Sometimes we’re just loyal to loyalty.
If reports are accurate, the DOD had long since known that Bergdahl abandoned his post, sent his things home and skipped out with some sort of desire to, like Jules from Pulp Fiction, “walk the Earth.” He turned his back on his fellow soldiers and his mission and deserted. It wasn’t like he had been through multiple tours, reached his breaking point and snapped. He was only there a couple of months. But he folded, stepped away from the table and walked off into the Afghan night. Most agree that he is a deserter. Some go as far as to call him a traitor, who actively sought out the Taliban to assist them, shield himself behind them or learn from them.
Bottom line, he betrayed one of the Army’s core values. Loyalty was abandoned. Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers were abandoned. Some of those soldiers lost their lives looking for him. Families lost sons, brothers and fathers; all because one young man turned his back on his mission.
Screw that guy, right? Certainly don’t trade him for 5 high-ranking terrorist operatives. By God, that would be horrific. In itself, it’s a poor trade. It’s like trading all of the skill position players on the Denver Broncos for Jonathan Martin. It also seems to betray our oft-repeated position that we do not negotiate with terrorists. Furthermore, it sets a highly dangerous precedent. How brazen will kidnapping attempts be, now that the Taliban and Haqqani network operate under the assumption that we do negotiate with terrorists?
This smelled a little funny from the beginning and now it stinks. And with reports continuing to come out about Bergdahl and his writings, sentiments and past military conduct (reports suggest that this wasn’t the first time he went AWOL), the stench has grown even more fetid.
But I want to come back to the idea of loyalty. Bergdahl seems to have shed his sense of loyalty to his soldiers and our mission over there. Does that mean that our loyalty to him should be severed as well?
How often do people to whom we are loyal not reciprocate that loyalty? How often is our trust and faithfulness betrayed? How often do the people, teams, schools and countries to which we are loyal act in way with which we do not agree? Does this automatically mean that our own loyalty to those organizations should be kicked to the curb?
Although these metaphors aren’t perfect, I’ve been thinking about military families and how they might deal with disloyalty.
Example A: A deployed soldier is unfaithful to his wife multiple times. The infidelity was deliberate and brazen. But she forgives him and tries to reconcile. Is she a foolish rube or intensely loyal?
Example B: A soldier’s son repeatedly steals money from his mom to buy drugs. He scoffs at her when she recommends rehab, constantly berates her in front of his siblings and makes her life a living hell. Does she throw him out of the house or is she loyal to her son and stand by his side until the bitter end?
Example C: A soldier in a commander’s unit or company commits suicide right before a deployment. Does the commander accompany the deceased soldier’s body home and attend his services out of respect and duty? Or does the commander send an underling to the funeral, out of loyalty and duty to the rest of his soldiers and their mission as they deploy?
Example D: An NCO finds that one of his soldiers has been pawning stolen unit equipment, but knows that the soldier’s family is in dire financial straits because of family circumstances that were beyond the soldier’s control. Does the NCO act on his loyalty to the unit and the Army and turn the soldier in to fight “fraud, waste and abuse?” Or does the NCO, also fiercely loyal to his soldier, let it slide while acting to prevent additional thefts?
On paper, loyalty and integrity are wonderful sounding terms. They speak to some of the highest human values. But in practice …situated in life’s messiness… loyalty and what loyalty demands of us, becomes blurred.
I am certainly not suggesting that the Pentagon made a defensible call with respect to exchanging Bergdahl for terrorists. But what I am saying is that I appreciate our efforts to get Bergdahl back and what sort of loyalty that shows to our service members. The military was faithful to Bergdahl even when Bergdahl had no faith in it. But as the discussions about Bergdahl grow more heated and vitriolic, we come to see that loyalty does not operate in a vacuum. It remains one of many deciding factors we use to guide our conduct every day. But if loyalty becomes the sole guiding principle for our actions and if we ignore other decision criteria, it may seem like we’re tacitly enabling those who harm us and continue mindlessly showing up for the beating.
Chris Field has been an Active Duty Army spouse for 8 years. He teaches university philosophy wherever his wife’s duty stations take him, and writes regularly for DC Military Family Life. Being an Army spouse doesn’t define him, it completes him. Don’t ask him about Fight Club or Nietzsche, for you will never hear the end of it.