Desertion, Martial Manhood, and Mental Illness: The Case of Sgt. Bergdahl

Desertion, Martial Manhood, and Mental Illness: The Case of Sgt. Bergdahl

Several months ago, when I submitted my first blog post for Nursing Clio, I included a short section about Civil War veterans who had lost their right to a pension because they had deserted the army during the war. But after discussing it with our editors, I decided to remove the section – after all, we thought, desertion isn’t really a current issue, right? I was more than a little surprised when, a few months later, the topic of military desertion became headline news.

On May 31, 2014 Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was freed from a Taliban prison in Pakistan through a prisoner exchange. Bergdahl, 28, had been in captivity for five years, the only known American prisoner of war from the war in Afghanistan. His release was initially seen as a major success; members of Congress had been calling for increased efforts to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home for years.

Within days of the first news of his release, however, the story about Bergdahl began to change. Politicians who had previously supported Bergdahl began to criticize the prisoner exchange, arguing that the release of the five Taliban detainees put American lives at risk. Senator Ted Cruz speculated that Bergdahl’s exchange would only encourage terrorist groups to take more American POWs. In a bizarre twist, media commentators began to question Bergdahl’s parents’ behavior and appearance. Bill O’Reilly speculated on the actions of Robert Bergdahl, Sgt. Bergdahl’s father, who had learned to speak Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and wore his facial hair in a long beard, commenting that the senior Bergdahl looked “like a Muslim.”

Robert Bergdahl
Robert Bergdahl

But then came what media critic Brooke Gladstone dubbed the “Swiftboatification” of the story, hearkening to the bitter criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s military record during his 2004 presidential run. Evidence surfaced that Bergdahl had allegedly slipped out of his tent on his post in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in June of 2009, carrying a backpack with supplies. At some point after departing from his post, Bergdahl came to be held by the Taliban — although it’s not clear how. As this allegation surfaced, focus quickly shifted away from the patriotic expressions of relief for an American prisoner-of-war’s release and towards a near-universal condemnation of a traitorous deserter.

bergdahl-cover_zpsb8f6db04According to friends who spoke to the Washington Post, Bergdahl had a history of difficulty with his mental health prior to his enlistment. When he was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009, Bergdahl’s friends recalled a series of disjointed, sometimes disturbing, emails that suggested he was struggling with his mind. Files on the computer he mailed to a friend before his disappearance suggested he was also wrestling with his feelings about the war. “Compared to the hell of the real wars past,” Bergdahl wrote in a computer file, “we are nothing but camping boy scots [sic]. Hiding from children behind our heavy armored trucks and our c-wire and sand bagged operating post, we tell ourselves that we are not cowards.”

Once it was suggested that Bergdahl might have left of his own volition, pundits and the public alike began describing the soldier as not only a deserter, but something much worse: a traitor. He had turned his back on his comrades, and by extension, his country. Such men are not worthy of rescue –  one acquaintance of mine even suggested that Bergdahl should have been left in Pakistan to die.

In practically hours, Bergdahl had been transformed from hero to villain. Yet, if the allegations against him prove true, Bergdahl would be far from the first soldier who became overwhelmed by the strain of war and walked away from his post. Soldiers have deserted or gone absent-without-leave on account of their mental or physical condition throughout the history of American warfare. Although we don’t know exactly how many of the roughly 300,000 Civil War deserters left on account of their health, it was a significant factor. Eric Dean, in his classic study of post-traumatic stress disorder among Civil War veterans, found that many men deserted due to combat trauma.[1] Charles Glass argues that many of the 38,000 American soldiers tried for desertion during World War II were broken down from long stretches of heavy combat.[2]

Private Eddie Slovik
Private Eddie Slovik

One of the most famous and controversial American deserters was Eddie Slovik, a twenty-four year old GI who deserted during World War II. In his book on Slovik, William Bradford Huie wrote that the young soldier was motivated to desert the army by his first taste of combat: “What Slovik … saw was mile after mile of charred, gutted, mangled, wreckage; men, horses, wagons, trucks, tanks … a charred body, ghostly, looking almost alive, still sitting at the burned off steering wheel of a charred truck.” [3] When he decided to leave, Slovik was candid about his reasons. In a note that served as his confession, he wrote that he had been “so scared, nerves [sic] and trembling” during his first engagement, and added “I will run away again if I have to go back out there.” Although no American soldiers had been executed for desertion since the Civil War, officers decided to use Slovik as an example. Slovik was sentenced to death by firing squad, and on January 31, 1945, became the last American serviceman to be executed for desertion.[4]

Of the WWII-era deserters, Charles Glass argues, “Few were cowards.” [5]  Rather, they were human beings reacting to the intense stress and trauma of warfare. While the case of Sgt. Bergdahl remains unsettled, at least one thing seems clear: Bergdahl, like Slovik, was punished for his failure to adhere to high expectations of military – and masculine – behavior. As Adam Turner recently reminded us, Americans want soldiers that remind us of our childhood GI Joe dolls: all the heroism of battle without any of the repercussions. By acknowledging the psychological implications of warfare, Bowe Bergdahl and Eddie Slovik deviated from acceptable parameters of martial manhood and threatened to undermine the legitimacy of their wars. Each soldier paid the price for these transgressions – one with his honor, and the other, with his life.



[1] Eric T. Dean, Shook Over Hell: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 127.

[2] Charles Glass, The Deserters: The Hidden History of World War II (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 2.

[3] William Bradford Huie, The Execution of Private Slovik (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2004), 127.

[4] Kimmelman, Benedict B. “The Example of Private Slovik,” American Heritage Magazine 38 (1987).

[5] Glass, The Deserters, 2.


Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.