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Sgt. Bergdahl and the Fog of War

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The “fog of war” is a reference to the moral chaos on the battlefield as well as the rampant confusion. Individuals kill others for no other reason than that they are ordered to. Things deemed unambiguously bad in civilian life are authorized and even lauded in war. The killing and maiming of acknowledged innocents — in particular children and the elderly — is excused as “collateral damage.”

No wonder that some individuals thrust into this morass sometimes act differently from how soldiers behave in romantic war movies. The hell of war is internal as well as external.

We might remember this as the story of Sgt. Bowe Robert Bergdahl unfolds.

Bergdahl volunteered for the U.S. military and was apparently a gung-ho soldier. Americans have not been conscripted since 1973, but young Americans are propagandized from childhood with the message that time in the military is service to their country. Few question this narrative; fewer seek rebuttals to it. You have to want to face the facts that governments lie and that the service is to an empire having nothing to do with Americans’ security.

This, however, doesn’t relieve military personnel of responsibility for their own conduct. In 1951 — while Americans were fighting in Korea — Leonard E. Read, one of the founders of the modern libertarian movement, published “Conscience on the Battlefield,” in which a dying American soldier hears his conscience say that he — not the army or government — bears responsibility for his deadly conduct: “Does not the fault inhere in your not recognizing that the consequences of your actions are irrevocably yours…?”

Bergdahl seems to have been plagued by this question. (See Michael Hastings’s revealing 2012 article.)

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell described a regime that used war to keep its population too frightened to ask questions and in which the enemy could change without notice. Orwell may have exaggerated, but not by much. The United States sided with one Afghan faction against the Soviets and their Afghan allies in the 1980s, then switched when it replaced the Soviets as invaders in 2001.

On the surface, the war in Afghanistan seems easy to understand. The Taliban government gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which attacked American targets in the 1990s and on September 11, 2001.

But things are not so simple. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government sided with the future Taliban and al-Qaeda. President Reagan called the Afghan mujahideen “freedom fighters,” subsidized their war, and hosted them at the White House.

After the Soviet exit and years of  civil war, the Taliban became the brutal theocratic government of Afghanistan, but not an anti-American terrorist organization. Indeed, as late as May 2001, President George W. Bush was helping the Taliban suppress opium production. After 9/11, the Taliban made various offers to surrender or expel bin Laden, but the Bush administration was uninterested. (This lack of interest predated 9/11.) Taliban attacks on American military targets since the U.S. invasion should not be construed as terrorism, but rather as combat between former government officials and the foreign force that overthrew them.

Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, points out that soon after American forces invaded Afghanistan, “there was no enemy to fight”:

By mid-2002 there was no insurgency in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban had ceased to exist as a military movement. Jalaluddin Haqqani [whose “network” held Bergdahl captive] and other top Taliban figures were reaching out to the other side in an attempt to cut a deal and lay down their arms.

But, Gopal writes, “driven by the idée fixe that the world was rigidly divided into terrorist and non-terrorist camps, Washington allied with Afghan warlords and strongmen. Their enemies became ours, and through faulty intelligence, their feuds became repackaged as ‘counterterrorism.’”

When Haqqani, a celebrated freedom fighter during the Soviet war, turned down a deal from the Americans because it included detention, the U.S. military attacked his home province and other areas, killing his brother-in-law and innocent children.

If he wasn’t with the Americans, he was against them, and therefore it was open season.

In this whirlwind of cynicism and relativism, can anyone be blamed for wondering what the point of the war was?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.