The Deserters: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and the 50,000 US Military Deserters in World War II

Gary G. Kohls, MD

Three years ago I used as one of my columns an essay written by retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, a disciplined antiwar hero that some of us Duluthians got to meet when he was a featured speaker here before the ill-advised military misadventures started in the MidEast. A small part of that 2011 essay (that was written for was about the quagmires experienced by every greedy empire that ever invaded and then stupidly tried – and failed - to colonize Afghanistan (and then tried to find a way to extract themselves without having to lose too much face when they fled with their tails between their legs). McGovern titled his essay “They Died in Vain; Deal With It”. It has been archived at
For me, the most memorable quote that McGovern used in that essay was from. Rudyard Kipling, who often wrote about Great Britain’s militaristic efforts to extract resources and labor from its colonies so that Britain’s top 1% could profit from its conquests. Kipling intimately knew southern Asia (he grew up in India at the height of British domination of that country) and was frequently a war correspondent. He knew what he was writing about when he penned this verse:

“When you’re wounded and left on
Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up
what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your
And go to your gawd like a soldier.”

- Rudyard Kipling

Those combat veterans who 1) had an intact conscience going into the military, 2)  somehow retained some of it through soul-destroying basic training (not an easy thing to do) and 3) may have physically (but not psychologically) survived their combat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq (or Vietnam), know what Kipling was writing about. Many veterans of foreign wars since World War II have come to realize – usually much too late - that they might actually have been duped into actually serving the highly profitable military/industrial/congressional/financial/media complex. For more on the reality of the forces behind war, google “All Wars are Banker’s Wars” or click on the YouTube video at: thinking combat soldiers and combat veterans have also came to realize too late that there was a huge spiritual cost to pay both in the preparation to kill and then actually doing the killing or torturing of other humans, especially the innocent or unarmed ones. I suspect that Kipling’s desperate soldier’s last thought might have been that though he had been killing as he had been ordered to do, he was now dying in vain. That honest view of what happens in war zones puts many patriotic people in conflicted states of mind; and thus they find themselves in an uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance and thus deny the obvious truth.Most combat veterans (except for the ones with pre-existent psychopathic/sociopathic personality disorders – which are, by the way, over-represented in the military) realize way too late that they had not been fully informed ahead of time about the hidden costs of war or that they are likely to become drugged-up victims of life-long post-traumatic depression, post-traumatic anxiety, post-traumatic guilt, post-traumatic nightmares, post-traumatic daytime flashbacks, post-traumatic insomnia, post-traumatic suicidality, and post-traumatic homicidality (and, also, the loss of the ability to believe any longer in the  compassionate, merciful, loving god of the Christian religion). At the time they volunteered or were conscripted they were kept unaware of the nearly inevitable spiritual and psychological consequences of participating in combat war.

Was Bowe Bergdahl a Conscientious Objector to War and Killing?

And the truths of those realties apply to the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the Presbyterian-raised, Buddhist-trained US Army sergeant who, after being trained to become a “lean, green killing machine”, belatedly realized the criminality of the military misadventure he volunteered for when after he, like millions of other Americans, swallowed – hook, line and sinker - the Cheney/Bush/Rumsfeld Big Lie that the Three World Trade Center Towers were NOT imploded by the obvious controlled demolitions that brought all of them down at freefall speeds but were rather brought down by two (not three) jetliners whose jet fuel fires burned out rapidly - long before the pre-planted explosive charges did their dramatic deeds. (See the June 2, 2014 press release from the 911 Consensus Panel on the demolition of WTC 7 that “scientifically refutes the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) claim that, for the first time in history, fire caused the sudden and complete collapse of a large, fire-protected, steel-framed building on 9/11” at: One must suspect that the isolated Bergdahl’s brain-washed, sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden, conflicted (and drug-altered?) brain led him to opt for desertion rather than continuing to live in an intolerable, “no way out” situation in which he was trapped. The Pentagon is now getting their story straight before we actually have a chance to publicly hear the real unvarnished truth from Bergdahl. (Recall the Pentagon’s cover-up propaganda job that was done on the “friendly fire” killing of Pat Tillman, best told at Bergdahl’s Christian/Buddhist background, he should have, and could have, become a conscientious objector to war and killing before he signed up, a legal option that was open to him even after he joined the US Army to fight and kill Afghanis who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. But Bergdahl, as is the case with many military personnel, may have been unaware of the CO option or were unable to exercise it. Certainly there were no superior officers, chaplains or psychiatrists in the isolated Afghan post that were willing to counsel him on CO status. Or perhaps Bergdahl knew that he would have been a target of shunning or even a resentful “friendly fire” death if he had declared himself an objector to war on the basis of conscience. So he exercised the other option that his desperate, tormented soul considered – desertion.

A Useful History of US Military Desertion

Most of us Americans, brain-washed by the repeated claims about the heroism of the men of the so-called “Greatest Generation”, exhibit classic cognitive dissonance and therefore choose to disregard the fact that nearly 50,000 US soldiers deserted their military posts in the European theater of WWII. Those desertions were usually related to poor morale, poor leadership, sleep deprivation, intolerable fear of death and the understandable often unbearable stress of combat. (Note that 100,000 British soldiers also deserted during WWII, and during the Civil War, more than 300,000 troops went AWOL from the Union and Confederate armies.)By and large, the frontline buddies of the WWII American deserters totally understood the desire of otherwise sane, moral, non-psychopathic humans to walk away from unbearable stress, and they let them go. Only the rear-echelon types (called “REMFs” – google it -  in the Vietnam War) called for their punishment. Thousands of those American soldiers were convicted of desertion, but only 49 of them were sentenced to death by firing squad, with only one actually being executed. The others were either jailed, overlooked or pardoned in the confusion of war. (For more on that story, see the excerpt below from the book review of “The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II,” written by historian and former ABC News foreign correspondent Charles Glass. The review can be read in the NY Times at
As you read the book review below and consider the overwhelming media condemnation of Bergdahl and his loving family, keep in mind 1) the American soldier’s desertion rate in past wars,  2) the uber-patriotic far right-wing, often racist, critics of President Obama’s actions in bringing back Sgt Bergdahl, 3)  the Pentagon’s dubious claim that it  “never leaves it’s soldiers behind” (consider Ray McGovern’s story about the Pentagon’s leaving the sailors of the USS Liberty behind in 1967 at: and 4) the fact that the most fascist of Obama’s domestic enemies have been shamefully issuing death-threats to Bergdahl’s family before they find out all the facts of the case.
Here is an extended excerpt from the book review:
Into the Lives of Three Deserters Who Did Not Have a Good War

A Book Review of “The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II”

By Dwight Garner - June 9, 2013

“Stories about cowardice can be as gripping as those about courage. One tells us about who we’d like to be; the other tells us about who we fear we are.” -- Charles Glass

Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted from the armed forces during World War II. (The British were in the war much longer.) Some fell into the arms of French or Italian women. Some became black-market pirates. Many more simply broke under the strain of battle.These men’s stories have rarely been told. During the war, newspapers largely abstained from writing about desertions. The topic was bad for morale and could be exploited by the enemy. In more recent decades the subject has been essentially taboo, as if to broach it would dent the halo around the Greatest Generation.“The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II,” by the historian and former ABC News foreign correspondent Charles Glass, thus performs a service. It’s the first book to examine at length the sensitive topic of desertions during this war, and the facts it presents are frequently revealing and heartbreaking.Gen. George S. Patton wanted to shoot the men, whom he considered “cowards.” Other commanders were more humane. “They recognized that the mind — subject to the daily threat of death, the concussion of aerial bombardment and high-velocity artillery, the fear of land mines and booby traps, malnutrition, appalling hygiene and lack of sleep — suffered wounds as real as the body’s,” Mr. Glass writes. “Providing shattered men with counseling, hot food, clean clothes and rest was more likely to restore them to duty than threatening them with a firing squad.”Thousands of American soldiers were convicted of desertion during the war, and 49 were sentenced to death. (Most were given years of hard labor.) Only one soldier was actually executed, an unlucky private from Detroit named Eddie Slovik. This was early 1945, at the moment of the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Glass observes: “It was not the moment for the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, to be seen to condone desertion.”There were far more desertions in Europe than in the Pacific theater. In the Pacific, there was nowhere to disappear to. “In Europe, the total that fled from the front rarely exceeded 1 percent of manpower,” Mr. Glass writes. “However, it reached alarming proportions among the 10 percent of the men in uniform who actually saw combat.”It is among this book’s central contentions that “few deserters were cowards.” Mr. Glass also observes, “Those who showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other front-line soldiers.”Too few men did too much of the fighting during World War II, the author writes. Many of them simply cracked at the seams. Poor leadership was often a factor. “High desertion rates in any company, battalion or division pointed to failures of command and logistics for which blame pointed to leaders as much as to the men who deserted,” he says.Mr. Glass adds, “Some soldiers deserted when all the other members of their units had been killed and their own deaths appeared inevitable.”The essential unfairness of so few men seeing the bulk of the combat was undergirded by other facts. Many men never shipped out. Mr. Glass cites a statistic that psychiatrists allowed about 1.75 million men to avoid service for “reasons other than physical.”This special treatment led to bitterness. Mr. Glass quotes a general who wrote, “When, in 1943, it was found that 14 members of the Rice University football team had been rejected for military service, the public was somewhat surprised.” Mr. Glass provides information about desertions in other American wars. During the Civil War, more than 300,000 troops went AWOL from the Union and Confederate armies. He writes, “Mark Twain famously deserted from both sides.” Nearly all of the information I have provided about “The Deserters” thus far comes from its excellent introduction. The rest of the book is not nearly so provocative or rending.
At its best, “The Deserters” has much to say about soldier’s hearts. It underscores the truth of the following observation, made by a World War II infantry captain named Charles B. MacDonald: “It is always an enriching experience to write about the American soldier in adversity no less than in glittering triumph.”

Dr Kohls has been actively involved in peace, justice and nonviolence issues for much of his adult life and, since his retirement from the practice of medicine in 2008, has written a weekly column for the Duluth Reader.