(See also: “In Defense of the Westboro Baptist Church” and “American Diaper“)
“Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity are by no means unreal or, for that matter, devoid of social content; nor do they arise from exclusively ‘middle- and upper-class living conditions.’ They arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society.” (Christopher Lasch, American historian, 1932-1994)
For at least the duration of this week, Bowe Bergdahl will remain the most hated man in red-state America. So far, the loudest voices denouncing him are the supporters of a sitting American president who, as a draft-eligible youth during Vietnam, received four deferments and a (probably) bogus medical disqualification from military service while other, less privileged young men went to war in his stead. Most of Bergdahl’s detractors will have never served in any military or, if they did, will never have deployed to a combat zone.
An acerbic remark about the President’s draft dodging was in the news two weeks ago. It was made by an admiral’s son who graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point; who, once in theater in Southeast Asia, was promptly captured and sang, like Bergdahl, for enemy propaganda. This admiral’s son was eventually released home and a (probably) false narrative of heroism was promulgated as he rose to a seat in the US Senate, while hundreds of his fellow POWs were left behind—a disgrace he has been at the forefront of covering up for decades. Like the President, the Senator sends US servicemen to die for sordid reasons that will never be clarified to the American public. But most of Bergdahl’s detractors won’t get too animated about that.
From what can be gathered on his Wikipedia page, Bowe Bergdahl is an omega-male eccentric: homeschooled, vaguely artistic, brought up in a splinter sect church but with a fetish for Buddhism and delusions of sauntering off into the wide Mohammedan vistas of Central Asia like some kind of Great Game cartographer.
Here is what he emailed home shortly before being captured:
The future is too good to waste on lies…. In the US army you are cut down for being honest, but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… I am ashamed to be an american…. The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies…. We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running [Afghan] children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks…. I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting.
A lot of my old emails probably sound like this—annoyingly callow and self-righteous. Perhaps it contains little in the way of outright falsehood. But if a narcissist is someone who conceptualizes himself as the star of his own movie (“The future is too good to waste”) then the character Bergdahl is playing is Rambo with a lisp—and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, i.e., here is what his father wrote back:
OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!
Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible. Dad.
Conscience? That’s the last thing you need in the army. This is terrible advice—either the father doesn’t know his son, or he doesn’t know himself. Bergdahl the Elder (a typical exponent of the kind of hippy-confederate pretense to self-reliance so common in the late-American cycle) is essentially advising junior not to reimburse gangsters he willfully borrowed money from. Bowe’s wrong about the Ugly American, too: what’s peculiarly disgusting about Americanness is not compulsive rule-following or callous disregard for human life (those things are universal.) Rather, it’s the coquettish insistence on enjoying complicity and rebellion simultaneous.
When I was in the Israeli army I got butt-hurt about something and went AWOL for a week. I rode into Jerusalem and left my bag and rifle in a locker at a youth hostel, but I didn’t want to be there either, so I went for a jog.
It was late. It was dark. After running four or five miles, I realized that the Dome of the Rock was peering at me from an angle it never had before. I emerged out of darkness into a well-lit intersection. Packs of male teenagers were roughhousing on street corners. Cabs and delivery drivers with unfamiliar license plates were stalled up and down the curb. The smelly runoff from dumpsters and shawarma-joint mop buckets mingled in the gutters. Waddling matrons in hijabs were taking advantage of the evening reprieve from the summer heat to do their grocery shopping at vendors’ stalls. The storefronts were lit up in neon Arabic.
I had wandered, unarmed and alone, into Palestine (well, I think it was somewhere near Wadi Qudum, technically within Israeli jurisdiction, but still a Hamas hotbed.) A callow, bourgeois existentialist, I didn’t know who I really was, and when I did, the conviction was fleeting. But if the people on that street had noticed me—or, if I hadn’t gotten out of there swiftly in the direction from which I’d come—they’d have known perfectly well who I was, and things would have turned out very, very bad for me.
Of course, war pervades the middle east, but “war-like conditions” pervade America. What does that mean? Deception is the essence of war, but what is the essence of America? You can see it in Times Square, in a Hollywood picture, a philanthropic campaign or public apology. What characters are more quintessentially American than the huckster, the shill, the confidence man, the philandering or money grubbing preacher, the motivational charlatan, the tycoon?
The first white men who settled this continent came in search of freedom: cash crops, real estate, Montezuma’s coffers. Slaves. The freedom of finder’s keepers. The freedom to fuck, suck, eat and shit. Freedom isn’t free—it has to be strong-armed, unfortunately. If she didn’t have all that oil, we wouldn’t have needed to invade ‘er. True, many of the Indians were no better to each other; and subsequent waves of immigrants escaping to these shores came largely for prosaic reasons, if not sordid ones. What savior, what savant, what Dostoevsky Idiot can rightly demand any redress of grievances now? For example, today the curtain is being peeled back on the world of American pederasty (among other perversions.) Bravo. But the father of American pederasty was Horatio Alger.
In summarizing the film American Beauty, a once verbally-unchastened Louis CK put it aptly:
Kevin Spacey playing the man… he’s fantasizing about fucking a cheerleader in high school, and the way they represent this, in this gay movie, this fucking bunch of cum through a projector—according to this movie, when you fantasize about a cheerleader, you lie on your back and rose petals fall all over your body. Instead of her hot, sweaty ass, and the confused look on her face as you cum in her stupid eye…. No, it’s Kevin Spacey with a sweet look on his face, and flower petals, and jazzy music.
[And at the end of the movie, the ex-Marine] is the one who’s really gay. ‘None of us are gay, it’s actually the one hetero guy, he’s the gay one.’ No one else is gay, Kevin Spacey’s not gay. He’s straight as an arrow, he lifts weights, listens to Zeppelin, drives a Firebird—and thinks about fucking rose petals. And then when he actually sees her tits he almost vomits…. He finally sees the 18 year old tits and says, what have I been doing all this time? I forgot I like men….
If the makers of American Beauty (such as Clinton confidante Harvey Weinstein, the film’s exec-producer) can glorify child-rape and drug-dealing, but can’t forgive an ex-Marine, it’s because “it belongs to human nature to hate whom we have injured.” But the consignment of combat veterans to poverty, derangement and indifference is an effect, not the cause of injury. The Bergdahl case illustrates this in ways we might not like to know.
The last American to be tried and executed for desertion, during WWII, was found guilty of escaping from danger (near the front lines), back into safety (in a liberated area of France.) Bowe Bergdahl, on the other hand, spurned safety and traipsed off into incredible danger. I’m not sayin this means that he’s brave, necessarily; but to treat this extraordinary incident strictly as a commentary on the stupidity or moral turpitude of Bergdahl himself is to miss its significance entirely. Rather, it’s an indication of how suffocatingly padded, litigious, infantilized and delusional American life has become. A postmodern system that automizes, “utilizes,” and pathologizes humanness, and measures us by metrics and KPIs, can offer young men for fodder; it can send them into dangerous places to shoot and be shot at; but on some fundamental level it cannot let them truly be men. In some fundamental way, even on the far-flung rugged terrain of Afghanistan, this vaginized baby-sitter regime only trebles its emphasis on procedure and safety and unthinking.
But how would a green recruit know that in advance? Not only is Hollywood not gonna tell him, no one in his community will, either: scarcely 1% of Americans have or ever will serve in the US military, and if they aren’t keeping their mouths shut about it, they’re probably blowing smoke (bravely, I might add.) But if Bowe Bergdahl did just eight hours of guard duty, he did 8000% more than most any of the rest of us. Sure, he got people killed and injured looking for him; but most everyone else in America is content to let others be injured and killed in our place. Bergdahl’s crime is not being a bigger piece of shit than most other Americans, it’s being exactly as big a piece of shit, with the added feature of bad timing.
That most of his colleagues in the combat arms represent a greater or lesser exception to this goes without saying. So certainly there is a characteristically American kind of honor—there has to be, it provides fodder for the other penguins to shove into the water. But Sun Tzu was wrong when he said the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. In America, our enemies are one another, they’re everywhere, and the supreme art of war is to get them to fight your battles for you. To obfuscate, intimidate or disconcert and get something for nothing while the mark blames himself. Maybe I deserved it. Maybe I secretly wanted it. I didn’t fight hard enough. I saved my objections for the staircase. I had no choice. I’ll find a way to compensate. At least I wasn’t the only one. Once the die is cast, conscience becomes freedom’s truest enemy.
The grasping protagonist of Borges’ The Immortal is a legionnaire who says “I barely glimpsed the face of Mars [and] that privation grieved me, and was perhaps why I threw myself into the quest, through vagrant and terrible deserts, for the City of the Immortals.” How much flailing braggadocio is likewise expended by American men who will never feel truly tested, vindicated or individuated? That weaselly energy has got to profit somebody in this land of umpteenth second chances, where Jesus is Lord, insurance is mandatory and Budweiser urges you to drive responsibly. Where once we came fleeing persecution or poverty, today, with nowhere else to go, we try (and fail) to escape from ourselves. Profligacy, obesity, overdoses, dropouts, car crashes, rap sheets, rejection, one-night stands, bullying and being bullied, chicken-shittery of every variety. That’s not who I really am, your honor. But its perpetrators are the soldiers of the real America, where around the Thanksgiving table and in mommy’s waiting embrace, all is validated, all is tolerated, and all is forgiven. So why not Bowe Bergdahl? In the words of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface, “You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers.”