Regardless of the assumptions and background knowledge that we bring, the presence of monuments on our Civil War battlefields may be one of the greatest obstacles to understanding the full range of soldier experiences. The monuments allow us to focus in on the most heroic stories and themes, which no doubt reinforces feelings of national pride and an understanding of what kind of behavior is expected. Such a focus, however, comes at the price of ignoring moments when soldiers fall short of what is expected of them in the heat of battle. Normally, we can safely ignore such moments, but it’s not so easy when one is thrust on us as is the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who reportedly abandoned his station in Afghanistan and spent five years as a Taliban Prisoner of War.
My friend, Peter Carmichael, is fond of promoting Civil War battlefields as places where Americans can ponder the past ten-plus years of a nation at war. This can be an incredibly fruitful approach to impressing upon visitors many of the connections between the Civil War era and the past two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was something that I tried to emphasize when touring battlefields with my students in Virginia. It’s hard not to see the influence of the past decade on scholarship having to do with the struggles of Civil War veterans and especially on the havoc that battlefields played on the human body. The most recent issue of The Civil War Monitor includes a one-legged veteran on the cover with the title, “Broken Soldiers” highlighted. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this influence of historians extends at all to the broader society.
The bitter and divided response over Bergdahl’s release is for me the clearest indication that Americans remain woefully disconnected from war. As much as I admire the goals of a Carmichael-style battlefield tour let’s at least start by admitting that since 2003 we have in no way carried ourselves collectively as a nation at war. Once war was declared in both Afghanistan and Iraq we were perfectly content as a nation with utilizing a volunteer force. We celebrated the patriotism of the many men and women who volunteered and we were perfectly content to sit by and not worry about the multiple tours of duty carried out by so many. I for one can talk all day about the life of the Civil War soldier and I am embarrassed to admit that I can say next to nothing about military life in camp, on the march and in battle in the two most recent theaters of war.
I don’t remember reading any Facebook updates commenting on Bergdahl’s decision to join the military nor do I remember any commentary when he was captured or at any point in the last five years of his captivity. We could go on with our lives with no concern for Bergdahl at all and yet the moment he was released we all had something to say. Yesterday I made the mistake of getting involved in a Facebook thread in which the author claimed that Bergdahl was not a POW. I asked if there was any evidence. Had I missed something in my reading? What I got in return for my question was re-direction and suspicion, not to mention a personal attack from a Civil War historian who recently published a book in which he accuses others of rushing to judgment about a certain Confederate general. I doubt that either of these individuals ever gave Bergdahl a moment of thought before this past week. That was par for the course given the wild accusations made about Bergdahl that could be found across social media and even on mainstream news.
Walking on Civil War battlefields I sometimes have to remind myself that not everyone (including the wounded) marched in close order forward toward the enemy. Many likely succumbed to their fears and dropped to the ground, sought cover or simply ran in the opposite direction. Even beyond the battlefield itself we know that many soldiers fell short of the martial ideal. Those us who are serious about history and the experiences of these men know to tread carefully when dealing with these moments. We know that there is a context in which to interpret specific moments in the life of the Civil War soldier, not with the goal of judging the individual in question, but with the hope that some kind of understanding is possible. We have an obligation to tread carefully as historians, but as Americans we owe it to these men who ultimately contributed to the preservation of the Union.
We have a similar responsibility to Sergeant Bergdahl. Those of you for whatever reason choose to reduce Bergdahl’s military experience down to one moment do him and every other service member a huge disservice. If we cared little for what these men and women experienced while in combat and now as many struggle to readjust to civilian life, we can at least do whatever it takes to ensure that they don’t become the next poster child in our ongoing political partisan warfare.
How do we do that? We can start by educating ourselves about the soldiers experience in its totality over the past decade. Maybe that would truly prepare us as a nation to thank our fellow citizens for all that they have done.