Military Pagans React to Bergdahl Release

Cara Schulz —  June 5, 2014 — 19 Comments

“Two is One, One is None”

I hadn’t heard that phrase for over 20 years, but when I did, it brought me instantly back to my time in military service. The military is full of phrases like that – easy to remember and encapsulating a depth of wisdom. In some branches of the armed forces it means that no tool is perfect or not prone to failure so always carry a spare. In the United States Air Force, it sums up the relationship between you and those serving next to you. You depend on each other, utterly, for survival. Your country may send you to screwed up wars, your officers may issue asinine orders, but your battle buddy? Your buddy you can count on, no matter what, to always be there and have your back. That simple phrase outlines a sacred trust and an unbreakable code of conduct.

Screen capture from video released by Taliban showing Sgt. Bergdahl being released to US Special Forces

Screen capture from video released by Taliban showing Sgt. Bergdahl being released to US Special Forces

I found that phrase coming back to me as I read about Sgt, Bowe Bergdahl, released after five years in captivity by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Rumors had circulated for years, in military circles, that Bergdahl had voluntarily left his unit with the intention of deserting, so I was not surprised when media reports started making similar allegations. I was also not surprised when his squadmates, and military members in general, made harsh statements about Bergdahl. Most said that, while they were pleased he was released, they wanted him to stand trial on charges of desertion and possibly treason. They noted his “selfish act” ended up costing the lives of “better men.” Bergdahl’s guilt, or innocence, is better suited for a military trial, not here.

Yet I wondered – how do Pagan and Heathen military members feel about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion? Is there a difference between how military Pagans and Heathens react to an alleged act of desertion than how mainstream military members react? Does their religion color their view of oaths and responsibility towards one another, and if so, in what way?

Lance Corporal Blake

“I’ve been over there [in Afghanistan] and everything you hear on the news is a lie. It’s pointless, frustrating. Your hands are tied in a way that lets the enemy kill you. You can’t defend yourself. And your orders make life worse for people that have nothing to do with the war, while the real bad guys can do what ever they want. But if he deserted, he should rot in Leavenworth. Deserters aren’t screwing the United States or making some grand statement, they’re screwing the men they serve with. Leaving them open to the enemy. It’s a personal betrayal. They didn’t walk away from Uncle Sam, they walked away from you and don’t give two s—- if you die because of it.

I’m a Heathen, an Asatru Marine, and my oaths bind my deeds. My deeds are who I am. I’m very careful to not make oaths lightly, as it affects if the Gods continue to favor me and what happens to me when I die. No matter how screwed up the situation, I couldn’t abandon my oath. I couldn’t abandon my brothers, knowing they would suffer in by my absence. I couldn’t live with myself if my brothers died because I chose to leave.

I’m guided by the Nine Noble Virtues. Here are a few that I think apply to breaking your oath to your brothers:

Strength is better than weakness
Weakness is more often found in your mind than in your body. It’s easy to lift something heavy, it’s harder to endure mental hardships and stay focused

Courage is better than cowardice
Courage is having a full understanding of the situation you face, and facing it anyway. Cowardice most often comes from refusing to face your situation and walking away. It’s easy to walk way. Not so easy to walk beside yourself once you walk away.

Honor is better than dishonor
There are honorable ways to leave a dishonorable situation. It requires being being very honest and upfront to all about what you feel is dishonorable and allowing discussion to happen. A solution through consensus may then be found. Or a way could be found where you live up to your oaths, but refrain from actions you find dishonorable. In the military that’s the doctrine of not excusing actions because you “were just following orders.” But it’s never excusable to betray your unit by walking out on them.

Freedom is better than slavery
Slavery isn’t a condition of physical servitude. A person can be a slave to an addiction. Or they can be enslaved to fear, guilt, and shame. From what I’ve read of Bergdahl, he was a slave long before he was captured by the Taliban. He witnessed the horrors of war and became enslaved to those horrors. He was unable to master himself. I’ve seen this happen to people I’ve served with. Wars break people, break their minds, break their spirits. The military does a poor job of helping those who have become enslaved wit horror and grief. My faith, my Gods, and my fellow Heathens have done more to help me stay in command of myself than anything the military provides. Christianity seems to me, to be of little help to Marines in times of war. It was meant for peace and normal sorrows.

Kinship is better than alienation
This one resonates the strongest for me in the military. The men and women I serve with are my brothers and sisters. Although we are not kin in the strictest sense, we are brothers and sisters. We have bled and sweated and cried with each other. We have a bond that cannot be equaled or understood by anyone who hasn’t been through it. In some ways, it is like a parent/child relationship, but the balance of power is equal. The feeling of duty and caring and responsibility toward one another are as strong as a parent feels for their child. That’s the best way to explain it. To walk away from that, to spurn your fellows, is unimaginable to me. To be capable of doing that is opposite everything Asatru stands for. To be an Asatru alone is to not be an Asatru. To be a Marine alone, because you left your brothers, is to not be a Marine.”

Moon Greenleaf, former Army Specialist

“An it harm none, do what ye will.

Being in the military in a war zone, I feel conflicted. My actions have brought harm to others. Sometimes it’s because I’m defending myself or my fellow soldiers, but other times I’ve harmed civilians in some way. I haven’t fired at them, but there are several ways convoys help and hurt the people of Afghanistan.

I’ve never harmed the men and women I drove with, though. I didn’t like some of them, but I loved them all. We’ve done things for one another you’d never believe you’d do for another human being. I’ve held a water bottle for my driver to piss in because once a convoy is moving, it doesn’t stop for anything.

I’m not sure if Bergdahl deserted or not, but it looks like he did. This is another time I feel conflicted between my military ethics and my religious ones. My military side thinks if he did desert, why did we trade to get him back? Just to throw him in jail for the rest of his life? What a waste. You never leave a man behind, but if the man walks off and leaves you? That’s his choice and he was living the consequences of his choice. So did the guys who died trying to search for him. They died for his choice of actions, to leave his squad and run away. I wonder how those families feel about Bergdahl’s release?

My Wiccan side remembers what it was like over there and how often I dreamed of driving to anywhere outside of Afghanistan. It’s physically so uncomfortable it can’t be described. It’s hot and dirty and showers and toilets are only back at post. You have too much down time to think about home and think about how you’re f—-ing up these Afghanis’ lives. But are you? Their lives have been f—- up for so many generations there’s no possible way to unf— them. You wonder why any of you are here because what you’re doing is so pointless. But I never seriously considered leaving. You don’t endure what you endure for your country, whose citizens don’t seem to remember you’re even gone while they order another latte at Starbucks. You endure and stay alert for the soldier next to you. The guy who holds the water bottle for you to piss in or takes your place manning the top gun so you can change your tampon.

My Wiccan side also understands some people are so damaged you can’t hold them accountable for their actions. People who suffer from mental illness deserve our compassion, not our condemnation. Did something happen to Bergdahl which harmed him so badly he wasn’t in his right mind anymore? I suffer from PTSD and I can’t drive a car anymore. I can’t even sit in one. If there’s a trial, perhaps we’ll learn more about his reasons and what happened to him.

Then I circle back to thinking we all suffered over there but we didn’t leave our buddies and desert. We didn’t cause other guys to die because they had to go out looking for us. Then I think, look how many of us are killing ourselves or can’t function like we used to in the civilian world. Is that any better? Is harming ourselves better than harming others? I don’t know.”

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Dean Stogdill

    I honestly don’t think we know the whole “behind the scenes” story with this subject. But if I were to look at this subject at face value, as a veteran, pagan and Modern Druid, my opinion of this is, you don’t desert your country. Agree or disagree with the actions of your company, commanding officer or country, you just wait till you can get out honorably. To give an oath to protect your nation and its citizens is a fairly large oath to break and only brings dishonor to yourself, your family, your posterity, etc. Not good mojo.

    • Bruce

      You need to make a distinction between serving this country and being a foot soldier for the economic and power elite of this country, the same people who are often quite hostile to the “people”. I can serve my country by meeting the needs of the people in my community. Explain to me how meddling in the affairs of a distant land helps us, the common people. You need to brush up on your history of US military interventions, and to separate the propaganda out from the history.

      • kenofken

        I would agree there is nothing inherently patriotic or noble about carrying arms for this nation’s power elite or imperial ambitions. At the same time, he volunteered for this, and if one’s conscious then no longer allows you to fight, you should withdraw at some point in your tour when you are not in a forward area and then prepare for the possibility of punishment. More important than the oaths to one’s commanders and service is the duty of care you owe the men and women in your unit. At that point, to hell with what command and washington want. The game is getting your unit back alive and togehter

  • I am a veteran, the wife and mother of veterans as well. I think the saddest thing in the US military today is the apparent inability to recognize mental wounding as being as much a wound as physical wounding. I don’t think Bergdahl is a hero; but nor do I think he is a traitor. I think he is damaged, broken — and as for the media-chew toy of being imprisoned for walking away? I think his time served under his Taliban captors should be seriously considered.

    America at large seldom thinks of the military and the rigors of that life. I find it very sad that even his comrades at arms, admittedly angry over his desertion — without much thought as to why, I’d say –were ready to abandon him. If they would not desert a comrade who was lying bleeding in a line of fire — perhaps there by their own screw-up, say? Why abandon a young man who is obviously mentally wounded? Walking off in a war zone is certainly not a very SANE act, after all.

    And that it will be made a huge political thing? Politicians who NEVER served making it their screaming point? Well, now THERE is a case of the man NEVER in the “arena” trying to sound like the winner of the match.

    • kenofken

      Almost all of the loudest screeching about this POW trade is coming from chickenhawk Tea Party/Fox News partisans who seized on it as fresh fodder for their Impeach Obama the Traitor/Satan crusade. They would have screeched even more loudly if Obama turned down this prisoner exchange. Then it would have been “Obama the secret Muslim abandons American hero to Taliban.”

      They don’t give a rat’s ass about this soldier or the facts. They’re all about flying the POW/MIA flags and the mantra “leave no one behind”. Unless it spins better the other way, then let ’em rot. Curious timing, too. If his comrades and the right apparently “knew” he was a traitor for five years, why is it that we never heard a peep from them. None of them wanted to put their name on the idea of abandoning an American until it became a front-page political liability for Obama.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    Cara, thank you for writing this, and for including these voices.

  • Mary

    Personally, I am waiting for concrete proof before I form an opinion on this issue.

  • There are other possible explanations than desertion. Bowe was 28 years old. This is a age when schizophrenia often first arises. It is possible that this soldier started hearing voices. If he were undiagnosed and not on medicine, he may have been acting on inner voices just telling him to start walking and leave his gun. He may have not realized what happened until he was in the hands of the Taliban.

    Also, investigation into the allegation that other soldiers died attempting to find him have not found evidence that of this.

    If he is mentally sick, then he needs medicine and treatment. I find this rush to judgment disturbing.

  • Colleen Faler

    I, too, am waiting to hear more facts than conjecture before I actually formulate an opinion. However, my eldest daughter will be leaving for the US Navy in about 2 weeks. I know that whatever situation she’s in, I raised her to know that her honor is about all she really has in this world. You don’t dishonor yourself or those associated with you (your unit, your country, family, friends, etc) for ANYTHING! You make a vow, you see it through. She knows she could be ordered to do something that sticks in her craw, but she is willing to go into this knowing that she won’t be able to make those decisions wholly and solely on her own. Because we don’t know what was going on with this man, I reserve my opinion of him. We do know what’s happening with soldiers when they come home. PTSD, combat fatigue, medical and psychological trauma——and an overloaded system that just can’t keep pace with the demand (I have a friend that works in the VA processing these applications for aid. They are overwhelmed). It’s enough to push anyone to the brink!

  • Macha NightMare

    Thanks for this post. I’m a descendant of people who fought, and died, in the War for Independence, the Civil War, Korea, and probably every other war this country has engaged in, which means that I feel a sense of ownership, an emotional investment, in this country. I’m troubled by all the deceit and double-speak from both politicians (especially politicians) and military. (This is not new, of course.) I’m even more troubled by the hidden wounds of war evidenced by veterans’ and active duty members’ meltdowns and suicides. So many of our veterans are homeless or in prison. Their loss is tragic for everyone: families and loved ones, communities, the country, the world. Having said all this, I don’t think this is a black-and-white matter. I think it’s complex and nuanced. I try to cultivate compassion for everyone who’s touched by these troubles.

  • Swannie

    As the mother of a former soldier , I can tell you , that if my son wrote me telling me he wanted to “desert ” I would not have told him ” follow your conscience ” . I would have gotten him some help , even if it meant calling my state senator and getting in touch with his commanding officer. I would have absolutely told him not to desert , knowing the consequences . Also , and no one seems to have mentioned this , how did he know, having left his unit, he would not be shot on sight , caught and tortured and then killed? Deserting in enemy territory put his life at greater risk than staying with his unit.
    Also as a mother , there is no question in my mind that we needed to bring Bergdahl home. But to bring him home as a hero , seems to me to be insulting to the men and the country he deserted . Are Americans so fragile we can’t deal with the truth ? Why can’t we hear, ” We are bringing Bergdahl home , and we will investigate the circumstances of his capture after he is home .” Must we always be subjected to political ploys? I hope we get to the truth of Bergdahl’s circumstances .
    There are other hostages , awaiting release . I hope they are freed soon

  • Bruce

    I am more disturbed that Pagan vets have been brainwashed by a Patriarchal Christian military culture that serves the economic and power elite of this country; an elite that has been hostile to pagans, native peoples, democracy, etc. etc. They are various reasons that the military culture is casting aspersions on the conduct of Sgt. Bergdhal and they are easily found on the hard right Christian websites. You guys need to wake up and stop supporting this immoral war machine.

  • Kathy

    By my understanding Bergdahl was not actually deserting. Apparently he had a history of leaving his post. It supposedly happened twice before. Once before he was deployed, and another time right after deployment. Both times he went AWOL for a brief time (a couple of hours is what I understand) and then returned to his post. There is no evidence to suggest that this time would have been any different.
    Now, as a USMC veteran, I find his decision to abandon his post and go AWOL, especially in foreign and hostile territory, to be not only reprehensible, but also the height of stupidity. However, that assumes that he is not suffering under a mental and/or emotional condition which may or may not have interfered with his ability to make rational decisions. Since I do not, in fact, know weather or not he was suffering under such a condition, nor do I know his reasoning at the time of his unauthorized walkabout, I have decided to reserve judgment till such a time as I can gather together the pertinent facts of the matter.
    At the very least, I believe that he should be removed from military service, and possibly prosecuted for dereliction of duty, disobeying orders, and abandoning his post. I also believe that it was our duty to recover him. One of the military’s promises to our troops is that we will “leave no man behind”. This is a promise without conditions. It is not “leave no man behind, unless it is too hard to save you, or ‘your not the best/perfect soldier’, or ‘it would be politically damaging to my career to go get you’, or even ‘your already dead so its not like it really matters any more’.” No, it is without condition. Even if you are dead, we will go and retrieve you so that your family has something to bury and your death will be given the dignity and honor it deserves. If you ask if the deaths of others was worth it to retrieve Bergdahl, even though he went AWOL of his own free will, the answer is ‘YES’! Men have died retrieving the bodies of the slain, and at no time have I ever heard someone ask if it was worth it. If it is worth it to retrieve the bodies of those who have already died, then it is worth it to retrieve the body of one who still yet lives.

  • Ninnuma

    As a military member and a member of the pagan community I only have this to say: You either stand together or you die.

    Despite your ideas and differences, depending on each other is key any event. I have worked with many different people from different parts of the world, different backgrounds and different moral codes and we have all worked as a group because it is the only way make it through a situation. A combat one especially. That is the time to embrace the idea of the group/pack and do what you must to survive. I would rather come home with my morals in question than come home with ten others in coffins. Whatever the details in the situation, this squad did not stand together and it cost lives. All life is important and should be valued as well as respected. If Bergdahl deserted, then in my eyes, he might as well have shot those that went to look for him. I hope that it is not true because then that would only make him the utter worse in my eyes. I have heard that he made a “mistake.” Please understand that mistakes happen in math problems. Desertion is a planned action and thought out choice made.

    One way or another, this man is in for rough times. But if there is on thing that I know for a fact, it is that this man needs to stay away from AZ. Every Vet here knows his face and (thanks to a very stupid news reporter) we all know his home address. He is not welcomed here and never will be. I know many military vets that would would stop what they were doing and beat him to a pump. Not just because he is/could be/rumored to be a deserter, but because his actions cost us the lives of our brothers… and that is a sin that we will NEVER forgive.

  • Wow, great article & interviews. Complex and complicated situation.

  • Courtney Weber

    I really appreciate hearing these perspectives. Thank you, Cara.

  • Eric Cooper

    I agree with most of the comments I’ve seen. As a disabled Vet and having served in the Army with 4 combat tours it’s about the Brothers and Sisters to your right and left of you. He abandoned them all when he left, deserted or not, he left his FOB at night without his weapon and without a thought for the consequences of his actions which caused the loss of life for his fellow Brothers in Arms and for that he should pay. He has NO honor and whether he has mental issues or not that is no excuse he can get help while he is in Leavenworth.

    • kenofken

      Honor is meaningless unless it is something freely chosen by someone who has the capacity to make that choice. We don’t know where on that spectrum he was at the time.