OK

I saw this Washington Post article early this afternoon, before it was referenced in another diary currently on the Recommended list. I wanted to diary it myself then, but was busy at work with no time to do so. I'm going to the trouble to do so now for two reasons. One is that I am professionally troubled by the implication of the other diary that Bowe Bergdahl was "sick"--but I also feel that significant ideological issues suggested by that article seem to me to have been largely neglected by the community. I believe that the article, if read from beginning to end, gives a compelling picture of a complex young man. It also ironically damns those who have been in the forefront of crucifying him in the court of public opinion. In a very bad news week for the batshit wing of the Republican Party, this may turn out to be their biggest problem of the bunch.

Let me say first that I was not the least bit surprised to find out that Bergdahl was an emotionally troubled man. His was not a convenient "desertion", if at all that's what he did--not simply abandoning military duty to melt into a civilian environment, or impulsively running away from life-threatening combat. He apparently walked unarmed into an entirely unknown world, that of tribal frontier Afghanistan. In doing so he was abandoning every tether of humanity that he knew--giving himself over to the unknown in an act of irrational courage, with the high likelihood of worldly doom. It could only have been done by someone with self-destructive urges, or one who was driven toward spiritual surrender. The article suggests that Bergdahl had both these traits.

It's obvious in the article that Bergdahl was very thoughtful, unconventional, and loved by those close to him. He was a dreamer, a questioner who thought outside of the box, and frankly sounds like someone I would like and admire. He didn't know what to do with himself, and then surprised those who knew him when he decided to go into the Army. He was aware that he was putting himself at risk, but apparently accepted that fact--and even lamented that the war he was engaged in was not as intensely challenging as other past wars were. He was disillusioned by the shallow values of his peers in the service, as he was by many of his peers at home. He saw behind the masks of convention, seeing himself as a citizen of the world, part of a greater humanity--and in the midst of this war, began to deeply question his participation and its purpose. And his guiding light in the spiritual self-examination appears to have been Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"--the putative bible of the Libertarian Right.

Many of us here at Daily Kos are less than impressed with Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, and for good reason. It celebrates the value of the individual, and dismisses the communal values that we Democrats hold dear. But let's give Rand some credit for not pragmatically compromising her worldview--at least not in print. (In her life, well, that's another matter.) In "Capitalism: The Unknown Value", Rand states:

Wars are the second greatest evil that human societies can perpetrate. (The first is dictatorship, the enslavement of their own citizens, which is the cause of wars.)
I consider myself a yellow dog Democrat--no admirer of Rand as a writer, philosopher, or human being--but I can't argue with that. I can take issue with the central tenet of Objectivism, which states that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness--not because I disagree at all with the pursuit of happiness, but because of that "one's own" thing, and the fact that this is the central tenet. But any kind of self-examination in your youth is a good thing IMO, because it takes you to different places and exercises your mind--and is infinitely preferable to being spoonfed ideology without any self-examination.

But Rand's philosophy has now been distorted by the Libertarian Right into political pabulum--stripped of some of its more obstreperously inconvenient details such as atheism, antimilitarism, and antinationalism--so it can be used to rationalize corporate largesse and personal greed, without challenging other elements of the status quo. And the wonder of the internet has allowed millions of young Tea Partiers to have access to a spoonfed diet of RandLite, paradoxically creating a vast army of avowed individualists!

But what happens when you place a REAL individualist in a military encampment on a warfront, with no internet instruction on which parts of "Atlas Shrugged" and Objectivism one is supposed to ignore? Someone who doesn't think that "going Galt" means merely not paying your taxes, but rather liberating one's self from unhappiness, injustice, and national identification?

You might get a guy like Bowe Bergdahl--a guy who was young, unsure, and unformed before he entered the military and the war, who probably didn't belong there in the first place--and who began to question what purpose he was serving in the world by being in the Army fighting a war in Afghanistan.

“how far will a human go to find their complete freedom. . . ” he wrote. “For one’s freedom, do they have the right to destroy the world to gain it?”

On June 27, he sent an e-mail to his friends titled, “Who is John Galt?,” a reference to the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged,” about individualism in a dystopian America.

“I will serve no bandit, nor lair, for i know John Galt, and understand . . . ” Bergdahl wrote. “This life is too short to serve those who compromise value, and its ethics. i am done compromising.

Three days later, Bergdahl walked off his post.

I have problems with a lot of the medical jargon that is used to characterize the vast array of psychiatric disorders. I even avoid the term "mental illness", unless I'm referring to more overtly dysfunctional states like schizophrenia. And I can't for the life of me countenance the term "sick" for the troubling and occasionally bizarre comments that Bergdahl makes in this article. Is he any "sicker" or "crazier" than were his circumstances in Afghanistan, or a more "functional" soldier who happens to relish combat? The WaPo article uses the word "fragile"--while I prefer the word "troubled", since I'm not terribly sure how "fragile" he will appear once his full story is known. Either seems more appropriate than simplistically labelling him as having an psychiatric illness, at least until we no more about the man and his story.

But on the political front, what could be more ironically delicious than finding out that last week's whipping boy of the Far Right was a disciple of Ayn Rand--and may have put Objectivism into action in a manner that puts the vast army of Galt-wannabees to shame. I look forward to hearing more in the future from his family, and from Bowe Bergdahl himself--who I suspect has a fascinating story to tell, with no shortage of introspection. And the rankly partisan Democrat in me hopes that he will continue to be a thumb in the eye of the Libertarian Right for months, maybe years to come.

Originally posted to Making Sense of Psychiatry on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 10:45 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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