Rusty Nelson on Peace and War: Trying to Support the Troops

It must have been several years ago because the signs we held said “Free Bradley Manning,” and we Vets for Peace didn’t have to defend Chelsea Manning’s transgender rights while bringing attention to the persecuted, military whistle-blower Americans were trying to ignore. At an event in Riverfront Park, I was approached by two burly young men who said they were active duty military and considered Manning to be a traitor. They thought the army intelligence analyst’s reporting a massacre by U.S. helicopter crews was insignificant compared to the release of other classified information to Wikileaks. At least they knew something about the case. But then, they issued a challenge they might like to have back, now. “If you want to do something for an American soldier, put our government to work to free Beau Bergdahl.”

How things change. Private Manning, known now as Chelsea, is serving a 45-year prison sentence while the soldiers she reported remain uncharged and unpunished. Sgt. Beau Bergdahl is back in the U.S. after a controversial hostage/prisoner exchange, awaiting a decision on whether he will be charged with a crime. The story is different from the one several years ago, and several men from his unit want to see Bergdahl punished for being a deserter and putting them at risk.

I have an affinity for Chelsea Manning and Beau Bergdahl, not because they found themselves in the midst of a stupid, illegal war, as I once did, but because they dared to break away from the herd, assert their individuality, and distance themselves from the senseless killing that is part of every war. I knew the military could not be trusted to spare Manning for her courageous display of integrity, but I’m not ready to accept her harsh sentence, either. Most of Bergdahl’s story remains mysterious, but it seems to me that he could not justify what he was being told to do regarding people he did not hate. I don’t expect him to be treated very well.

Manning’s supporters are struggling to raise legal funds, but the media are tired of the story, which never had much traction with them, anyway. Bergdahl’s case, too, is slipping out of the public eye, as we are quietly told, every week or two, that a decision will be made, soon. The Pentagon spin doctors don’t want you to remember the soldiers whom they can’t squeeze into the hero mold. For instance, they’re not going to email you updates on how Sgt. Bales is getting along in prison for practicing his military craft on randomly selected Afghan civilians. It’s hard enough for them to keep a lid on the most egregious cases of military sexual trauma.

Meanwhile, we are treated to plenty of media coverage of other byproducts of perpetual war, and we’re warned about public comments regarding our military adventures and adventurers. The Brian Williams kerfuffle reminds us that we can even get into trouble for the way we praise our heroes in the armed forces. In fact, I contemplated writing about Williams’ problems, myself, until it became clear that every valid observation and conjecture on the subject has already been

made, at least once, but I would point out that his buddy, the retired sergeant major, credited with his safety when he wasn’t almost shot down, didn’t bother to correct his memory when they had a high-profile reunion at a hockey game

Speaking of the hero mold, Chris Kyle seems to have broken the mold and been elevated, posthumously, to an exclusive pedestal. It wasn’t sufficient that his memoir captivated war fans around the country before he was shot to death while trying to help a marine veteran deal with his PTSD. Self promotion could not achieve what Hollywood has for the former sniper, and his film story is now in the record books for legendary money-making. Kyle will be, if he is not already, the most famous enlisted person in U.S. military history and will probably surpass John McCain as the most recognizable figure to have been in the U.S. Navy and not been subsequently elected president. Have your kids ever heard of John Paul Jones or David Farragut? Not that I think they should.

While American Sniper, the film, continues to bust blocks, the Kyle saga continues in a Texas courtroom. Perhaps there’s a verdict as you read this, but I’m betting there’s no closure. Not for the families of the victims or the 27-year old defendant or the millions to whom the deadliest sniper, ever, is an object of adoration and patriotic pride. Certainly not for the military which relies upon the uncritical loyalty of each pillar of American values.

Eddie Ray Routh is on trial for the murder of Kyle and Chad Littlefield, two years ago. His plea is: not guilty due to insanity, and early testimony makes one wonder why the prosecution would take the case to trial and make it painfully obvious that Routh should have been hospitalized upon discharge from the Marines in 2010. From my perspective, the state risks confirming our fears that the U.S. military routinely recruits mentally ill persons and trains them to kill, or trains fine young people to kill before placing them into a crucible which will ensure moral and/or physical wounds which will limit their capacities for constructive citizenship.

If you miss the irony in the movie or book, I doubt you can avoid it in the courtroom. Littlefield, not a veteran, had tried to help a number of PTSD victims and was something of a Kyle groupie. Although the good Samaritans realized their charity case was seriously delusional, it didn’t occur to them that handing him a loaded gun was a bad idea. And, regardless of the outcome of the trial, it appears Kyle will be remembered as a great patriot and hero who lived and died trying to help his fellow Americans. Many of us who learned too much, too soon, about war, will never be able to think of a prolific sniper in a far-away country as someone who is saving lives, and it’s torturous to contemplate navy recruiters telling teenagers that if they’re good enough for the SEALS, they could be like Chris Kyle.

I don’t recommend that you disparage Kyle publicly, unless you are prepared for ostracism, at best. But if someone wants my opinion about snipers, I’ll recommend they read a significant part of my favorite American novel, The Brothers K, by David James Duncan.

When I went to Vietnam, in 1967, I was a true believer and a good shot. There were times I wished to be enlisted instead of commissioned, but I never wished I’d been a sniper. Today, I wish someone had told me, “Don’t kill for me. I feel safer with no enemies.”