I have been working in Afghanistan for the last 11 years, providing dentistry services. I went there because I knew that the people were in trouble and needed help. During that time, I have not seen any significant aid actually reach the Afghan people. All this while, over a trillion dollars has been spent there, mostly as military spending. This money has been exchanged with primarily military contractors hired to perform specific military-related jobs. Public Assistance funding meant to serve the needs of the people was largely diverted, with each successive contractor taking some money and passing it on to another contractor, without doing anything, until the money was gone. Military-initiated “hearts and minds” programs would offer pencils to children who had no access to paper. The Afghan adults, suffering for over 30 years without any significant infrastructure, held on to the hope that America and the rest of the world would come to their aid, but this has failed to happen.
At this time, there is not sufficient economic and technical infrastructure in Afghanistan for it to survive as an independent entity. Countries need an infrastructure to be effective and solvent, but this was destroyed when the Soviet Union invaded and everyone involved in the infrastructure left the country. That internal technical and economic skeleton was never restored. This makes the country vulnerable to those who want to control it. The Taliban has grown stronger all during this time.
To me, restoration of the infrastructure was the most important focus. I saw large groups of orphans, some of whom had no family, and some whose family could not feed them. They were each more intelligent than the average American, from my experience. They learned how to help me almost instantly, intuitively, as I treated them, and I saw their potential for re-creating the glory of Afghanistan. Beginning in 2003, I contacted the U.S. government in different ways to try to divert some of their funding to training young adults in helping rebuild the technical infrastructure, but I was never successful. So I chose instead to provide the funds myself to be able to continue this work, and the project is thriving, but this has been very hard on me in many ways.
During this 11-year time, some revelations about how the American government functions came to me, and I began to see it serving itself without acknowledging a responsibility to the public and its interests. It appeared to me like a runaway horse pulling a driverless cart behind it; of course, the cart was our nation. Many incidents involving the government occurred, telling me that I could not count on it to do the right thing (in the greater sense of the word) — incidents like Abu Ghraib and a bombing at Bagram Air Force Base in which the Americans killed became heroes and the Afghans killed were buried instead of their bodies being returned to their relatives.
I came to realize that if our government was to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” then I should step to the plate and stand up for what I believe is right. I knew that I could not confront the government; they are not ready for this. Our apathetic dysfunctional government is a reflection of our society. To correct government’s problems and to get them to do the will of the people, every person needs to focus on making their personal dream a reality by their commitment to their own high values. I decided that I needed to sincerely look to my heart for the right course of action and make my personal dream a reality. I had to act on my inspiration.
I believe the situation with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is being misrepresented to the American public and is in reality a moral issue. A lot of people complain, but they never act on what they know is right. They just accept what they are dealt. Young, idealistic men and women now enter the Armed Forces and receive training that conditions them to always follow orders; to not think, but to act as they are told. Many of them do this so that they can go to college when they return, or because they cannot find a job.
The war inside Afghanistan is not like other wars, where there are moral issues and a definite enemy wearing a uniform on the other side of a line. In Afghanistan, people all dress the same, whether they are ordinary citizens or Taliban fighters. Often we hear of Afghans killed by mistake. As in past wars fought in foreign countries, cultural differences are not respected, and the citizens are given derogatory slang names that diminish their value. These people are already suffering from over 30 year of war, having to survive on nothing, dying from bad water and malnutrition. And none of this has been of their own doing.
A soldier’s conscience cannot be completely eliminated, so conflicting thoughts and being forced to act contrary to one’s conscience is creating a lot of post-traumatic stress in soldiers, and is a major problem for returning veterans who are trying to re-enter society. These soldiers may have compromised their own value system during their military service. What therapeutic resources are available for a soldier to deal with this? Psychological counseling has little effect. The high percentage of returning veterans with PTSD attests to the gravity of this situation.
Bowe Bergdahl made a decision to live by what his heart told him. He saw the good in the Afghan citizens, recognized the hardship and inequity imposed on them, but was helpless to make any meaningful act to resolve the dilemma. He then chose to consciously stand up for what he believed in, which was courageous due to the physical jeopardy he placed himself in to make this commitment. He planned all of this and wrote his plan in an email before leaving. No one is recognizing this. Most people are seeing him as a traitor. He will probably be tried as such and committed to prison like Bradley Manning was. But I am proud of him.
We need to live from our hearts, taking our inspiration and building our lives on it. If we do this, we will change our own lives, and the nation will heal and become in balance. We all need to become Bowe Bergdahls and stand up for what we believe, uncompromising. He has made this statement in justifying his actions. No one is talking of this in the media. Someone needs to bring this out in the open and focus on it. This is what I believe our nation needs. People need to see the value in living from their hearts. As each individual changes his priorities, the world will change accordingly.
On June 27, 2009, according to Michael Hastings writing in Rolling Stone, Bergdahl sent an email to his parents before he was captured:
“The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting. […] one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team […] [Bergdahl’s battalion commander is a] conceited old fool […] 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 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. […] I am sorry for everything here. 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. 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 […] I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting […] There are a few more boxes coming to you guys. Feel free to open them, and use them.”
Bergdahl had apparently sent all his belongings home in those boxes. On June 30, 2009, Bergdahl left a note in his tent to express his disillusionment with the Army, that he did not support the American mission in Afghanistan, and that he was leaving to start a new life. According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the White House did not inform the committee of the existence of a note.
James G. Rolfe, DDS, is president and founder of the Santa Barbara–based Afghan Dental Relief Project.