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I’m Tired of Older Brothers

There’s always an older brother! While there are many loved ones and neighbors in Idaho prepared to kill the fatted calf and break out the robe, sandals, and ring, Bowe Bergdahl’s release from five years of captivity by the Taliban has also brought out the older brothers. Though much about the circumstances of his capture remains murky, at least to the general public, former comrades in arms, pundits, and politicians are using the occasion to attack the President for the manner in which his release was orchestrated and to call for punishment of Bergdahl for alleged desertion or dereliction of duty.

I’m not naïve, most days. I don’t expect government policy to be directed by the parables of Jesus. Bergdahl is not Luke’s Prodigal Son, Obama is not the Waiting Father. Governments make policy based on cold political calculations about power, influence, and national interest, not to mention more than a little personal self-interest for those involved. But must the rest of us stand in the shadows of this national drama with arms crossed and jaws clenched, grumpy over the perhaps undeserved good fortune of this poor soldier? Does an expression of grace discredit the service of other soldiers whose record contains no ambiguities? Will possible misjudgments and poor decisions leading to five years of lonely captivity marked by fear of God knows what encourage others to wander off from a base in Afghanistan? I doubt it.

Why is it so hard for us to share a national moment of joy for one who truly “was dead and has come to life, who was lost and has been found?” The war in Afghanistan has produced precious few opportunities for celebration. Thousands of US soldiers have been killed or grievously wounded and many more bear invisible scars of PTSD which they and their families will contend with for years. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed. A corrupt government has been kept in power and enabled to fleece its citizens of much of the money intended for building civilian infrastructure. Women and girls remain vulnerable. There is no confidence that the Taliban won’t emerge after our agonizingly slow departure. Shall we talk about Iraq? Last week 800 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence, the vast majority of them civilians. The carnage unleashed by our invasion in 2003 appears to be accelerating.

And yet we can’t unambiguously celebrate the fact that one young soldier in ill health has been rescued from a miserable and dangerous captivity to be reunited with his family? Have the culture of war and the cult of military honor reduced us to an endless, self-righteous exegesis of the balance of reward and punishment deserved by someone in the midst of war which is, by definition, fraught with excruciating moral ambiguities, to put it mildly? Is someone who may have wandered off his base in some confused or anguished mental state really on such a different moral plain from those who proudly point to the kills their unit can confirm? And what about those of us who as citizens are complicit in sending these young women and men off to commit mass violence? Are we truly able to claim moral innocence? Dig through the real stories of many of the men we will memorialize tomorrow who lie under the white stones at Normandy and we will undoubtedly find some tales that don’t quite fit our notions of heroism and nobility. But they died, denying us the opportunity to divide the heroic “deserving” from those who may have cowered on the beach before being slaughtered. Yet we remember, honor, and grieve them all, as is right.

As long as we continue to send our youth into places rife with moral hazard, let’s try to cultivate some generosity of spirit. And while Bowe begins his long road home and his likely difficult road to recovery, let’s tell the older brothers around us either to join the party or take their pious sanctity elsewhere.

John H. Thomas
June 5, 2014

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