One of the essays that I wrote in graduate school at the University of Richmond was on desertion in the Confederate army. I published a short version of the piece in Civil War Times, which you can read here and I am hoping to publish a longer and more analytical version somewhere in the near future. My interest was with those deserters who were tried and executed and specifically with how their comrades responded. As many of you know these executions were public events meant to influence the behavior and resolve of the hundreds and even thousands who often were ordered to attend.
What struck me was the overwhelming support that these executions had within the ranks. Soldiers understood that discipline and unit cohesion was paramount to the survival of the army and that unchecked desertion would ultimately lead to defeat. But even though there was widespread support for executions soldiers expressed sympathy for the condemned. Soldiers understood many of the forces influencing their comrades’ decisions to desert and on occasion acknowledged that they could just as easily be facing the firing squad. The ease with which men sympathized with one another, no doubt, reflected their experiential common ground.
As a historian I struggle just to begin to understand the experiences of these men. Having never served in the military and having never experienced a battlefield my frame of reference for understanding the soldiers’ experience is severely handicapped. In the end, I must admit that I am grasping at straws. In the case of the Confederate soldiers I studied for this particular essay all I can do is try to come to terms with the complexity of their experience as individuals and as members of a military community at war. I refrain from judgment.
It is with this in mind that I find it so disheartening having to listen to and read the vitriol leveled at United States army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years of captivity with the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is evidence that he deserted his unit. I support the government’s work that led to his release and I also believe that the military should investigate the reasons for Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base and follow up accordingly. This is between Bergdahl and the military.
As for me, I don’t want to play politics with this case. All I can do is thank PFC Bowe Bergdahl for doing the best that he could.