The Psychology Behind Strong Emotional Reactions To Bergdahl

news

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Mentioning his name guarantees a visceral response from people in the military and veteran communities, eliciting a “Fuck Bergdahl” retort or feelings of sympathy for what he endured during five years in captivity. One Army veteran of the Korengal Valley I spoke with recently said he had to stop listening to the Serial podcasts because Bergdahl’s voice caused him to grip the steering wheel so tightly out of anger that he risked driving off the road.


There are robust psychological explanations for the strength of the near-allergic reactions to any mention of Bergdahl and his alleged crimes. These feelings are now at a fevered level due to his impending court martial and the blazingly intense spotlight of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, which is taking a microscopic look at the details surrounding Bergdahl’s alleged desertion, captivity, and return. So what explains our gut reactions to Bergdahl?  

First, we need to recognize we’re operating in the realm of morality, which has limited overlap with the world of rationality. In the most recent episode of Task & Purpose Radio’s Serial-reflection podcast, James Weirick, remarking on the rawness of commentary about Bergdahl, stated that “it is as if most people don’t want to know the facts.”

Related: The conspiracy theories surrounding Bowe Bergdahl.

The strong automatic responses to Bergdahl’s case typify the kinds of reactions within moral reasoning where research shows that we understand whether a situation is right or wrong before we engage our higher order reasoning processes. In essence, we decide that Bergdahl was either in the wrong or right first, then we interpret and marshal evidence to match that gut feeling. By the time deliberate thinking about Bergdahl’s situation is engaged, we’re not actually conducting dispassionate utilitarian and logical argumentation.

For example, those who think that Bergdahl is a deserter or a traitor are less likely to believe his story about wanting to cause a DUSTWUN in order to protest the state of leadership in his unit. Those who think that Bergdahl walked away from his post because he was a whistleblower lodging a legitimate protest against a bankrupt coalition effort in Afghanistan are more likely to think that he was justified in his actions. At this point in the moral reasoning process, those on either side of the argument are unlikely to listen to arguments from those with whom they disagree. Debate gets shut down with phrases such as “He’s just wrong” or “Come on, can’t you see he was trying to do good?” or “You’re just wrong, he’s a Taliban sympathizer, plain as day?!”

These phrases are an indicator that psychological bedrock has been struck by the argument shovel. The exact composition of this psychological bedrock varies somewhat from theory to theory, but like the geological variety, it forms the hard core of a person’s moral makeup. Scholars have coined the terms “protected” or “sacred values” to describe this immovable mental formation. For example, in one of the variants of the so-called “trolley problem” involves the choice of blocking a runaway passenger train car by pushing one person in front of it to save five people. When faced with this choice, some people respond that it is never okay to kill another person. Others might take a utilitarian approach and murder one person to prevent the deaths of five others. For the former, protected values (in this case the value of a life) and discussion of potential utilitarian trade offs generally results in denial of the possibility of making trade offs, feelings of anger, and ultimately incredulousness that not everyone shares the same moral fiber. These values are intellectually rooted in a philosophical branch of ethics called deontological theory, or Kantian ethics, which is absolutist in its dictates for what is morally permissible, required, and forbidden. Notably, absolutist variants of morality put duty to act and the act itself at the forefront, as opposed to the consequences of acting.

For the Bergdahl case, that means that he was morally wrong in his actions regardless of what he was trying to achieve by walking away from his platoon. Perhaps this is why those who consider him to be a deserter and traitor are quick to dismiss both his motives and to consider what happened to him in captivity. For those who may be among his staunchest and most sympathetic supporters, Bergdahl is given both the benefit of the doubt and perhaps ascribed heroic qualities for being willing to risk his life to make known his concerns about “leadership failures.”

It is also why so many people struggle to make sense of their own feelings in the case: Grappling with competing values (e.g., “I deeply believe in ‘leave no man behind,’ but Bergdahl was disloyal to his unit and buddy-fucked his platoon mates”) is not a comfortable psychological place to find yourself. Recognizing that these complex moral dilemmas are playing out and that most people naturally feel very strongly about the case is the first step to controlling strong feelings that interfere with logical debate. By being honest with ourselves about the moral bases for our disagreements, the military and veteran community can have a civil and necessary discussion about Bergdahl’s case.

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that's so striking that it begs a simple question: "What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?" When we do, we've decided, we're going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Read More Show Less
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the monitor of their drone at their advanced position, during the fighting with Islamic State's fighters in Nazlat Shahada, a district of Raqqa. (Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The United States should keep arming and aiding the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, provided the group keeps up the pressure on Islamic State, a senior U.S. general told Reuters on Friday.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump claims the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department's budget that he will now spend on his border wall was not going to be used for anything "important."

Trump announced on Friday that he was declaring a national emergency, allowing him to tap into military funding to help pay for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Read More Show Less

Long before Tony Stark took a load of shrapnel to the chest in a distant war zone, science fiction legend Robert Heinlein gave America the most visceral description of powered armor for the warfighter of the future. Forget the spines of extra-lethal weaponry, the heads-up display, and even the augmented strength of an Iron Man suit — the real genius, Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers, "is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin."

"Any sort of ship you have to learn to pilot; it takes a long time, a new full set of reflexes, a different and artificial way of thinking," explains Johnny Rico. "Spaceships are for acrobats who are also mathematicians. But a suit, you just wear."

First introduced in 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) purported to offer this capability as America's first stab at militarized powered armor. And while SOCOM initially promised a veritable Iron Man-style tactical armor by 2018, a Navy spokesman told Task & Purpose the much-hyped exoskeleton will likely never get off the launch pad.

"The prototype itself is not currently suitable for operation in a close combat environment," SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty told Task & Purpose, adding that JATF-TALOS has no plans for an external demonstration this year. "There is still no intent to field the TALOS Mk 5 combat suit prototype."

Read More Show Less

D-Day veteran James McCue died a hero. About 500 strangers made sure of it.

"It's beautiful," Army Sgt. Pete Rooney said of the crowd that gathered in the cold and stood on the snow Thursday during McCue's burial. "I wish it happened for every veteran's funeral."

Read More Show Less