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.