The Medicalization of Dissent

Bowe Bergdahl’s case shows how military veterans’ antiwar actions are depoliticized by chalking them up to mental illness.

Bowe Bergdahl prepares for graduation from basic training near Fort Benning in Georgia. Bergdahl family / Rolling Stone

On June 30, 2009, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl left his unit in Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan. Walking alone, he was soon captured by Taliban fighters, who held him prisoner for nearly five years.

After his release as part of a prisoner exchange arranged by President Obama in May 2014, questions arose about Bergdahl’s motivations for leaving, and his susceptibility to accusations of desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” the latter a diluted charge of defection.

In recent proceedings comparable to a civilian grand jury, prosecutors alleged that members of Bergdahl’s unit assigned to a seven-week search for their missing comrade were subjected to considerable discomfort and exposure to enemy attack. As a result, Bergdahl faces charges that could put him in prison for life.

Bergdahl said he walked away not to desert his unit or the army, but to seek a higher military authority to whom he could report the incompetence of his unit’s leadership. It was an explanation consistent with the disgust for the war he expressed in letters to his parents prior to his disappearance, his shame for the US military’s mistreatment of Afghan civilians, and his disrespect for the career military personnel — calling his battalion commander a “conceited old fool.”

Left at that, it is unlikely Bergdahl will evade AWOL (Absent Without Leave) charges. But his guilt with respect to the more serious charges is open to interpretation. There is much in his views and actions that is characteristic of conscientious objection to war, the principle that for reasons of religious belief individuals can claim exception from military combat.

Bergdahl was homeschooled in a counterculture environment that valued individual thinking and personal responsibility, traits he displayed in Afghanistan. Indeed, in a text to his father just a day before leaving his unit, Bergdahl expressed horror at what he was seeing, to which his father replied:

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.

A defense of Bergdahl framed within the discourse of conscientious objection would enable him, his family, and the antiwar movement to put the war on trial and with it the political and military leaders responsible. The potential is there, in other words, for a classic table-turning legal strategy that puts the prosecutorial parties on the defense.

Bergdahl’s behavior appears to be quite rational in the context of a horrific war. His parents told Rolling Stone journalist Matthew Hastings that he had gone overseas “to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves.” In a later email to his parents, he said:

These people [the Afghans] need help, [but] what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid . . . we make fun of them in front of their faces and laugh at them for not understanding that we are insulting them.

Unfortunately, Bergdahl’s lawyer appears to be shunning the conscientious objector defense, focusing instead on the soldier’s mental health. His attorney, Lt. Col. Franklin D. Rosenblatt, argued last month that Bergdahl suffered “a severe mental disease or defect” at the time of his offense in Afghanistan.

The fine lines separating “bad” and “mad,” “criminal” and “crazy” fill volumes in the studies of criminology and mental health practice. And there’s a long history of using them to depoliticize antiwar activism.

In the closing years of the war in Vietnam, thousands of veterans returned and joined the antiwar movement. Pro-war pundits dismissed them as malcontents, political subversives, and the drug-addled offspring of an antiwar counterculture.

Liberal observers, meanwhile, tended to see veterans as victims of an unfair draft system and the brutalities of war and military authoritarianism. But the victim-veteran narrative was easily coopted by the media, politicians, Hollywood filmmakers, and the medical establishment to construct the image of wigged-out, trauma-stricken veterans whose dissent was viewed, though sympathetically, as more of a symptom than a political statement.

With the legitimation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a war-related mental illness in 1980, the memory of GIs and veterans empowered and politicized by their wartime experience was eventually displaced by that of veterans coming home as damaged goods.

The medicalization of dissent became a staple in the literature on the history of politics and psychiatry during the 1980s and 1990s, and it returned to clinical practice in 2003 when troops were deployed to Iraq. With public opposition mounting and antiwar demonstrations growing, the press and mental health professionals preemptively put the war-trauma narrative into play, asserting that our fighters would be returning symptomatic — and with that collective diagnosis, service personnel objecting on political or moral grounds were easily ignored.

It against this backdrop which the Bergdahl affair has to be considered. While the merit of his mental health defense is difficult to assess from the outside, the approach is emblematic of America’s tendency to pathologize veteran dissent against ill-conceived wars of aggression. Instead of their dissent spurring public reconsideration of existing policy, the defendants’ lawyers play off public sympathy for the psychological traumas that veterans often suffer.

Today, the mainstream media continues to spotlight cases in which soldiers commit crimes or struggle with physical or psychological issues. When covering cases like Bergdahl’s, veterans’ actions are rarely framed as legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times report on the defense’s “mental illness strategy,” for example, does not explore the reasons Bergdahl left his unit or engage with the content of his emails to his parents, which might have shed a different light on the case.

Still, none of this occurs in a vacuum. If there was a large antiwar movement, Bergdahl’s lawyer could have perhaps pursued a more political course, taken the case to trial, and used the court as an antiwar platform. Absent that environment, the defense might have had little choice but to argue that it was mental illness — not unshakeable principle — that drove Bergdahl to abandon his unit.