The VA Crisis, Bowe Bergdahl, and the Cultivation of America’s Imperial Conscience

D-Day Re-enactment

Re-enactors on Omaha Beach. According to NBC’s Brian Williams, America “saved the world” on D-Day. It would seem that American sanctions against Russia include editing them out of the history books.

From Memorial Day through the recent anniversary of D-Day, America’s corporate media have been belting out a military drumbeat that would have sent quivers down the spine of Rudyard Kipling. In between the repeated chorus portraying American military interventions around the globe as the guarantor of freedom, we have been treated to two novel verses, effectively drafted years ago as the conditions they describe evolved, and now fortuitously ready for recitation just as the American empire pivots from its long, deadly wars in the Middle East in favor of a reincarnated Cold War with former communists. The first of these new themes – a sudden focus on problems within the VA health system – has resonated throughout a polity already ringing with angst about the role of government in health care, and has triggered some of the most cynical political posturing imaginable. The second – the negotiated release of America’s last prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan, Bowe Bergdahl – has also been seized upon to focus popular attention in a particular way, but in this case the attempt to manage the message is most conspicuous among the messengers in the media. In both cases, the lessons that should be drawn, and the questions that should be asked, have been placed out of bounds by those who tell Americans what to think.

Much as the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC formalized America’s status as a plutocracy, not a democracy, the nation’s suffocating culture of militarism leaves no room for doubt that America is an empire, not a country. While the framers of the American republic were not uniformly hostile to plutocracy (adoption of the Constitution was an elite-driven coup, though Madison in particular feared the consequences of concentrated wealth and power) their attitude toward militarism was far less ambiguous: standing armies were potentially dangerous to republican liberty and the people had every reason to be suspicious of the military powers of the federal government.1 But the threat posed by America’s modern military – by far the largest the planet has ever seen in terms of its reach, expense, and destructive power – extends far beyond the fate of the framers’ experiment. American militarism has already claimed the lives of millions around the globe. By failing to challenge it, the people of the United States guarantee that it will claim millions more.

Lost and Forgotten: The VA Crisis in an Imperial Context

The VA crisis of 2014 is an almost perfect microcosm of America’s plutocratic empire. A case study in the usefulness of selective outrage, it underscores the moral degeneracy of the nation that Barack Obama believes “with every fiber” of his being to be destined to lead the world.

The Associated Press (AP) has lost no opportunity to focus the nation’s attention on the failure of the VA to provide services in a timely manner. For a right wing that is so fond of decrying liberal bias in the mainstream media, the behavior of the AP has been a godsend, stamping the agenda of the plutocracy with the seal of conventional wisdom in a way that Fox News can never do. Every story trotting out statistics of fudged appointments and “lost and forgotten” veterans reinforces the key conservative message that government does not work, especially in the health sector. And as if that message were not already clear enough, the AP has explicitly rejected the proposition that the VA’s troubles stem from underfunding. In the AP’s logic, while Congress did not approve as much money for the VA as the President requested in his budget, it is normal for presidents to ask for more in the knowledge that they will probably receive less. The idea that Barack Obama might be just as interested in emasculating the public sector as the more obvious vultures in the room has not occurred to the AP; in their narrative, the Democrat is presumed to represent the side of “big government” and the appropriations process was a legitimate negotiation between two radically different parties. Thus, readers across the land are led to the seemingly ineluctable conclusion that (public-sector) bureaucracy is inherently incompetent and that the bipartisan congressional response – facilitating access to private care providers – is probably a good thing. When even the only Socialist in the U.S. Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders, eagerly proposes a bill that undermines the public monopoly of VA health care, the crisis has been converted into a stunning victory for the opponents of “socialized medicine.” (Progressives who see Sanders as a potential savior for the Democratic Party need to contemplate the reasons why a professed socialist can exist at all in the imperial capitol.)

Lost and forgotten in this corporate hatchet job are several highly pertinent facts, not the least of which is that the VA does an excellent job of providing health care. According to Joe Davis, Public Affairs Director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), most veterans are very pleased with the care they receive from the VA.

He pointed to the annual Independent Budget, a dream budget published by four leading veteran organizations. It has consistently found that the VA serves as “a model health-care provider that has led the way in various areas of medical research, specialized services, and health-care technology.” It provides “quality and expertise on veterans’ health care” that “cannot be adequately duplicated in the private sector” and has become “the most efficient and cost-effective health-care system in the nation,” the document notes. A 2005 survey from the RAND Corporation similarly found that “VA patients were more likely to receive recommended care” and “received consistently better care across the board, including screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow up.” The VA also outperforms the nation’s health care system in delivering chronic and preventive care, treating diabetes.

A 2013 survey released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that 93 percent of veterans who use the VA health care system have a favorable impression of it. A forthcoming independent survey of veterans scheduled to be released next month by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) will echo that sense….

Who’d a thunk it? The government can actually do something well – at least, if it’s given a chance….

In March, the nation’s leading veterans organizations — the authors of the Independent Budget — expressed alarm that Congress and the Obama administration are underfunding the VA’s construction accounts, raising concerns that “the serious lack of commitment to infrastructure funding to support the system will undermine the VA’s ability to deliver those services.” President Obama’s overall budget request for VA for FY 2015 is approximately $4.5 billion less than what the groups recommended for overall discretionary spending, though the administration has increased the VA budget by 58 percent since 2009. During the same time, as the administration made it easier for veterans to receive compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to Agent Orange, and brought troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan, claims soared.

Thus, the real story here is one of an agency being underfunded and overburdened. Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner summarizes the situation:

The reality is, those cover-ups [by VA administrators] have been one way some in the VA have dealt with the increased demand put on them from cutbacks, which creates under-staffed, under-funded clinics. How can a hospital get through a waitlist faster if there are not enough doctors, nurses and VA staff on shift? […]

The problem isn’t an individual at the top, or their administrators below. The problem is systemic, flowing from the U.S. government’s priority on funding warfare over the actual needs of their constituents.

In March 2003, as the Iraq war was beginning—as well as an unlimited faucet of funds for the defense industry—a $14 billion dollar cut to the VA budget was passed. It would have been a devastating cut even without the impending flood of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in serious need of quality care. Right away, the VA implemented hiring freezes and requested emergency funds just to pay its most basic costs, like paying for medical equipment.

But it’s not just cuts passed by the Republicans which have led to this crisis. The bipartisan assault under the Obama administration on all federal workers—from the post office to the social security administration—is to blame.[…]

When it comes to institutions of the federal government, the politicians’ strategy has been to under-staff it, under-fund it, and then say “look, it isn’t working, we need to privatize it.” That trend extends beyond the VA.

Anytime there are thousands of staff vacancies, it’s intentional—a manufactured crisis. It’s about cutting cost, not providing care. But the money is there, in large amounts, reserved for the defense industry.

When the Associated Press tells us that the VA crisis is a national disgrace, it is right for all the wrong reasons. If there is a disgrace here, it is that the very same armchair warriors who sent America’s young to sacrifice their lives, limbs, and sanity in the distant hellholes of imperial ambition have failed to make adequate provisions for the predictable human consequences of their actions. And these are the very same people who now jockey for position before congressional electorates, posing as patriots while their corporate backers in the military-industrial complex feast off the suffering of others. And for Mike Prysner, it is a national disgrace that millions of ordinary Americans do not have proper access to healthcare while America’s military has access to a trillion-dollar budget. But that is not all.

The manufactured VA crisis of 2014 echoes the right-wing’s obsession with the Benghazi imroglio. In a crucial sense that America’s national narrative will never acknowledge, the 40 veterans who “may have” died due to treatment delays at VA hospitals bear a striking resemblance to the “four brave Americans” who did die in the attack on America’s Benghazi compound. In both cases, the American losses are but a tiny fraction of the losses suffered by those on the receiving end of America’s military products. The hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died in Iraq as a direct and indirect result of America’s imperial war of aggression; the thousands who have died in Afghanistan; and the tens of thousands who have died in Libya in a civil war fomented by the West, these souls are all “lost and forgotten” by an empire that recognizes human dignity, if at all, only in its own members. For a country with a conscience, the failure to acknowledge these massive human costs would be a national disgrace nonpareil. But in the military empire of the United States, conscience is a quality to be crushed under a jack boot.

Objecting to Conscience: The Friendly-Fire Character Assassination of Bowe Bergdahl

Jani and Robert Bergdahl in 2012

Robert and Jani Bergdahl at home in Idaho, 2012.

At a time when America’s military veterans are being lionized as heroic defenders of freedom (despite the fact that war makes us less free), and when the nation is seemingly united in its desire to provide for their well-being, the viciousness of the character assassination of Bowe Bergdahl is a stunning indicator of where the empire’s heart really lies. Democrats with close ties to the military-industrial complex, like the queen of the surveillance state, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), have joined Republicans in condemning the president’s decision to trade Guantanamo detainees for America’s only remaining POW in Afghanistan. While Feinstein’s objections have been couched in the language of institutional prerogatives (including a disturbingly arrogant claim that she possesses better intelligence than her own president’s administration), the bloodthirsty howls emanating from the right would not have been out of place in a Roman coliseum. Bergdahl’s friends and family, living in rabidly Republican Idaho, had to cancel plans for a homecoming party for fear of ugly demonstrations.

So what did Bowe Bergdahl do that was so terrible? Did he turn Afghan civilians into hamburger meat? Did he urinate on the Koran and cause a diplomatic incident with the locals? Did he engage in humiliating abuses of Taliban prisoners? Did he use his position to smuggle heroine? Did he rape all the female soldiers in his battalion? No, Bowe Bergdahl did none of these things. Had he committed any of those offenses, we would probably never have known his name. Bowe Bergdahl did something far worse: he walked away from his post because his conscience told him that the American war in Afghanistan was morally wrong. That is the one thing that a servant of the American empire must never be permitted to do.

Objecting to the depravity of America’s military adventures is not for the faint of heart. Not long after Dr. Martin Luther King started to denounce the immorality of the Vietnam War, he was assassinated. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn) was the only Senator up for re-election to vote against George W. Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq, and was killed in a most peculiar plane crash while leading his race against Republican Norm Coleman. When football-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman told his comrades that the war in Afghanistan was wrong, he was killed by friendly fire before his celebrity status could amplify his message. (Those politicians who are so terribly offended by the schemes of VA administrators seem strangely unperturbed by the army’s obvious cover-up of Tillman’s death.) And the journalist Michael Hastings, whose expose of Stanley McChrystal ended the General’s career, died in an extremely suspicious car accident one year after writing the best account of Bergdahl’s case, which we cite below.

Hastings made it clear that Bergdahl was an unusually dedicated soldier, standing out in a unit that was generally lacking in discipline and soon went to pot once in the field. But Bergdahl was also notable for the nature of his upbringing. Home-schooled by religious parents, he had been taught to consider the ethical implications of his actions. This was a combination destined for an unhappy ending, as becomes clear from the final e-mail that Bergdahl sent his parents before leaving his unit:

“In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”

In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

In his response to his son, Bob Bergdahl advised his son to “obey his conscience”:

“Dear Bowe,” he wrote. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore one’s conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.”

And then Hastings himself placed Bergdahl’s next move in a context carefully eschewed by America’s corporate media:

Ordinary soldiers, especially raw recruits facing combat for the first time, respond to the horror of war in all sorts of ways. Some take their own lives: After years of seemingly endless war and repeat deployments, active ­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.

Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away.

Instead of allowing the country to ask whether its oft-professed Christian principles might have required a decent American to do exactly what Bergdahl did, those who portray themselves as Christian conservatives have bent over backwards to demonize Bergdahl as a self-centered deserter whose life was not worth the trade of Guantanamo detainees. Our old friend, plutocratic lickspittle Cal Thomas, fresh from calling for the privatization of the VA health care system, ridiculed Bob Bergdahl’s expressions of regret at the loss of Afghan lives and then sought to dismiss the analogy of Israeli prisoner swaps as being something entirely different that the U.S. should not try to emulate (principally because it just isn’t as good at this sort of thing as God’s other favorite nation). The next time he lectures us on the sanctity of fetuses in the womb, we will try to remember that Cal Afghan child killed by drone strikeThomas is a successful syndicated columnist because he understands the Bible far better than the poor, working-class Bob Bergdahl, whose readings of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine cannot possibly have been correct. When opinion-makers like Thomas assert that America did Afghanistan a favor by protecting its women and girls from the evil Taliban, who are the Bergdahls – or any other regular Americans – to gainsay him? It is not our place to question what our leaders have done with our tax dollars under our flag. Those who have died in America’s glorious wars have died to advance a great cause; their deaths, no matter how agonizing, were manifestly worthwhile. Just read the list of civilian deaths compiled by Voices for Creative Non-Violence and feel your pride soar!

Just as in the VA crisis, the putatively centrist guardians of the truth at the Associated Press deserve closer scrutiny than the plutocracy’s obvious sycophants. The AP’s solution to the imperial problem of channeling popular thought processes away from potentially awkward territory was to simply redefine the meaning of conscience altogether. In a piece titled U.S. Values Collide in Bergdahl Predicament, the AP circumscribed American values in exclusively militaristic terms: one moral dilemma was whether to leave a man behind; the other (quelle surprise!) was whether to negotiate with terrorists. “Each ethos,” we were told, “runs deep in the American conscience.” A tedious recitation of historical examples in which both had been violated due to the exigencies of our confusing, terrorist-ridden world helped reinforce the barbed-wire fence being erected around the scope of moral discourse in a country that would rather play with its iPhones anyway. The only form of ethics we are allowed to debate is military ethics – the only kind an empire needs.

Thus, it has been decided for us that America’s conscience does not require a better explanation for what we were doing in Afghanistan in the first place, or a justification for the loss of life on all sides, or some form of repentance for unnecessary infliction of suffering on innocents, or reparations for the victims of “double-tap” drone strikes, or a meaningful inquiry into the possibility that the 9/11 attacks were deliberately exploited in order to turn the United States into a police state at home. At this point, we are not sure whether to think of the acronym ‘AP’ as denoting American Propaganda or America’s Priest; either way, as good little citizens, we are tremendously grateful that professional philosophers with a superior grasp of moral principles have given us the guidance we need to feel a sense of inner peace. Truly, they have done us a great favor. Much as we don’t really need all those constitutional liberties we used to think were so important, but which we gladly traded to protect us from all those “folks” who hate us for our freedoms (if we are less free, they won’t hate us as much!), we don’t really need to be encumbered by all these weighty moral questions. The Bergdahls of this world are just making life too difficult for themselves. Being an American isn’t supposed to be that hard. That is one of the luxuries of being the rulers of the earth.


  1. In the Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton try to reassure their readers that the new federal legislature would never be able to engage in a long-term “conspiracy” with the executive to maintain an army large enough to endanger the liberty of the people. Although they clearly concede that armies are needed in certain situations (the tone of Hamilton’s writing is unmistakably supportive of federal suppression of popular uprisings that threaten order) there can be little doubt that the nature of the forces at the disposal of today’s executive, and the constant support of the legislature therefor, would astonish them as much as the color of our current president.


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