My husband empties the dishwasher with the painstaking diligence of the 21st century male while I sit at the kiddie table and muse about the more pressing issues of the average, middle-class American day.
“So….” I begin with all the languor of a pickled bean pod, “This Bowe Bergdahl fellow is really getting attacked in the media.”
We nod together, gazing at our shoes, recalling those early courtship arguments over the significance of praying to a sanctified piece of fabric and placing our hands on our hearts while so doing.
Something is really bothering my husband- a red-white-and-blue something hanging heavy in his head. Empathizing with Bowe’s discovery that his country’s government was not actually helping or protecting the citizens of Afghanistan does not assuage my husband’s concern about the consequences of Bowe’s decision to act on his ethics.
It goes back to the existentialists- and the big question of the previous century- namely, whether one should put conscience before country in everyday life. But he doesn’t see it that way.
My husband’s Atlanta childhood is difficult to resuscitate; he remembers baseball, tree swings, Six Flags, with all the generalized amnesia induced by a childhood of plenty. None of his relatives admit to harboring doubts about the virtues of the Republican Party. And no male member of his family- not his father, not a single one of his four uncles- ever served in any of the US military’s overseas activities. Armchair warriors, the are the angry Americans we read about, the ones still livid over the failure to win the war in Vietnam and vanquish communism once and for all.
Given his upbringing, my husband’s ability to think globally is impressive. But, Bowe still bothers him.
“Can’t we just agree that it was wrong for him to desert?” he pleads, assuming there are better options for the conscience-stricken soldier.
“Why didn’t he just refuse to serve and do his time in jail?”, my husband adds, as if the answer to this question might illuminate entire continents of moral misunderstanding.
“Um, maybe you should do a little reading. Start with Solzhenitsyn and Hannah Arendt.”
“Maybe you should read a little more history yourself, including documents pertaining to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War,” he counters.
“Obviously there’s Lincoln. But there’s also Czeslaw Milosz.”
“Senator Max Clelland,” he snaps.
“Vaclav freaking Havel,” I snap back.
The disconnect in our cultural frame of reference becomes obvious. At first, I ascribe it to the varying experiences of a native son and an immigrant. But when my immigrant parents cluck their tongues and decry Bowe’s lack of loyalty to their favorite flag, I realize the disconnect is much more complicated.
The disconnect lies between two different worldviews. In one worldview- the one to which my inlaws and parents subscribe- a government deserves loyalty above and beyond the considerations of personal ethics. In the other worldview- the one to which many dissidents and activists subscribe- modern history offers us the human casualties of the nation-state, each death paid for with taxes, each individual tragedy made possible by unthinking political loyalty.
I can feel the blood in my temples beginning the slow simmer that precedes a boil. Our kitchen feels too confining for the conversation. How can we put human tragedy in a room threatened by an avalanche of sippy cups without doing its victims an injustice?
So it arrives: the hot-headed, stupid comment without which we might actually begin to understand one another.
“Who are you to judge the deserters or the defectors?” I whisper-scream so as not to wake our sleeping angels. “You have no clue what it means to be a veteran of the crimes committed by the nation-state!”
Here’s where it comes from: In 1980, Doru and Lydia implemented their secret plan to escape the worker’s paradise created by Romania’s exorbitant dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Part of this plan required them to leave me, their adorable infant daughter, in the care of my father’s parents until events were sorted out for better or worse.
The actual events involved slipping through Czechoslovakia to Wisconsin, where my father had established connections in the academic community, then applying for political asylum, moving to another state, waiting for their asylum application to be acknowledged, dealing with the complications ensuing as a result of Reagan’s decision to grant MFN status to Romania, filling out the endless paperwork to bring me stateside, and adding more water to the soup in the hopes that it might last just a few more days.
By the time the US government finally approved my visa, I had a new little sister to fill my place as family baby.
Growing up in Alabama offered me continuous reminders about the evils of communism from folks who wore their Bible belts too tight. When the wall came down at the end of 1989, my parents took a leave from their jobs, withdrew us from school, and rented a car in Germany to drive through the interminable border crossing lines in the newly liberated territories of East and Central Europe.
For the first time since their defection, my parents were returning to the land of their youth and the fold of their extended family. I couldn’t wait to meet all the people that populated the kitchen stories of my childhood.
There is simply no way to convey the intoxicating wonder and ebullience of those early post-communist days.
While many aunts and second cousins kissed and hugged us at every turn, I got distracted by the heated conversations over tuica, the ones that dragged on until early in the morning. Overhearing these conversations revealed, for the first time, the accumulated anger and resentment of those who had remained and lived under Ceasescu. Frequently, my parents’ voices grew thin and reedy, hesitant in that peculiar manner adopted by defendants in a trial.
The accusations mounted like dental plaque. My parents had “run away”. They had “deserted their family”. They didn’t “stand up and protest the system”. They didn’t go to prison or the gulag for their beliefs. They just ran.
Fortunately, my father’s parents did not disown or persecute him for his political treason. One might even hold them responsible for raising their defector son in a way that made it possible for him to marry my mother and do what no risk-averse, well-settled, law-abiding citizen would seriously consider, namely, leaving everything behind and starting again as strangers in a strange land.
When they came to the US, my grandparents practiced their English and dressed in the manner trending with Alabama natives at the time. Neither considered the act of speaking English, or acknowledging the local “hallelujah”-laced lingo, as a betrayal of their homeland. Only the most militant propagandist could have accused them of “accommodation” or “appeasement”.
For the most part, my grandparents modelled politeness and non-confrontational engagement. They took the time to learn about the country they visited, using what they learned to help them negotiate the varying cultural norms and conditions. Ultimately, they made these efforts out of love for my father and a desire to share in our family’s life, whatever its current geographic location.
Like my grandparents, Bowe’s father learned the language of his son’s captors. He showed deference by using the Haqqani lingo, and grew a long beard to keep from being identified with an enemy country. Bowe’s mother wore a veil out of respect and to keep from antagonizing extremist Muslims. Surely I am not the only American who can understand and empathize with these actions.
My grandfather, Claudiu, spent time in a Danube Canal work camp for his impertinence.
“Just because people tell you to do something doesn’t make it right,” Claudiu told me as I juggled cooking his lunch, nursing some infant or another, and keeping my brain from morphing into a mush suitable only for toothless mouths.
What he meant: “Don’t do anything that makes you less of decent human being”.
What he didn’t mean: “Don’t do anything that makes you less of a human being unless everybody else, even the powerful guys, are doing it too.”
The question of conscience is- and had always been- an individual one. A personal encounter with lived ethics. A means of self-reckoning. A source of personal honor and integrity. The fact that people are doing something only makes critical thinking even more important because the tendency to follow the crowd (and find ourselves lost in it) is common to all human beings.
When I asked Claudiu how it felt to spend five months living in the country he fought against during World War II, he grinned and began picking his teeth.
“War is war,” he sighed, “And war is a fight between governments, not people.”
But the US fighter jets that shot down his only brother, Parsifal, as he flew a plane to defend Bucharest from bombs- how could he not hold his brother’s death against us? The U.S. of us, I mean.
Too wise to be baited, Claudiu reminded me that no one can judge what another man does to protect his family- “In matters of taste and conscience, each man is king”.
Bowe Bergdahl chased his most idealistic, exciting American dream straight into the US Army, where he was stationed on the front lines of the counterinsurgency, the battle for the “hearts and minds” of individual Afghan villages and communities.
In one of the two letters sent to his parents during his five year captivity, Bowe tried to explain why walked away from the base. He was disillusioned by the leadership- by the senseless risks and conditions imposed on his fellow soldiers- and by the failure of the US effort to win the war of ideas. He was depressed, oppressed by a sense of futility and lack of purpose; the aimlessness best depicted in novels by Herman Hesse.
What I found in Bowe’s letters was a young prisoner’s efforts to reassure his family (and himself)- to discover some purpose to the horror and suffering of life. “All things happen for a reason”, Bowe wrote, citing mathematics as “evidence” of higher meaning and purpose. Then, “just because we cannot understand the master equation does not mean it is not there.”
My husband gazes at me carefully. Marriage to a non-native accustoms you to a certain amount of suspense.
He recalls our experience at the Social Security office when I applied to change my name, and an elderly bouffant informed my husband, “Sir, I don’t know what this woman told you but you married a legal alien without a work permit”. The bouffant remained unimpressed by my USA-issued passport.
“Ms. I-can’t-pronounce-that, what we need is an original birth certificate.”
“From communist Romania?” my mouth dropped. “Can you even read a Romanian birth certificate? I mean, can you speak Romanian or something? Does anyone in this office speak Romanian?”
“This conversation is finished,” said the bouffant. Case closed. No further consideration. The garish misunderstanding brushed away with the words, “You are dismissed”.
It’s easy to dismiss Bowe’s actions as those of a traitor. It’s hard to explain why we offer defectors the benefits of acting on conscience while condemning our own citizens make similar choices.
Both my parents and Bowe acted from individual conscience. Both assumed the primary risk for their choices. Neither took another life in so doing. Yet both endangered family members, friends, and buddies affected by the actions.
Best not to judge those who run from the lies their government asks them to live and tell, lest we wake up one morning to discover our thoughts bear an uncanny resemblance to shoddy propaganda.