Skip to content

Bowe Bergdahl, John Galt, Rodion Raskolnikov: Three in One?

Bowe Bergdahl, John Galt, Rodion Raskolnikov:
Three in One?

by W. Trace Miller

            On June 30, 2009, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl deserted his post and walked into the hostile Afghan wilderness. In a matter of hours, the Taliban had seized and imprisoned him, initiating a hostage crisis that continued for five years. The United States immediately applied Brobdingnagian resources to the search for Bergdahl, but to no avail. He simply vanished into Pakistan. And as the time after his disappearance increased, so the manhunt languished.        

         Meanwhile, the five torturous years for Bergdahl were five tortuous years of volatile, delicate talks between the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Qatar, and the Taliban. Numerous mishaps – both unavoidable and avoidable – myriad mistakes, and a general pervasion of apathy prolonged the mutual release negotiations. Finally, the Taliban returned Bergdahl to United States custody in exchange for five Taliban leaders, initiating perhaps the most controversial homecoming of United States personnel ever. As Sarah Koenig puts it, “the loudest response was… ‘I can’t believe we just did that. We negotiated with terrorists…to release some terrorists…to get back a deserter?’” (“Serial”).

         This, then, is the Bergdahl case in a nutshell. We, however, are not overly concerned with the aforementioned details. Rather, I would like to investigate Bergdahl’s claimed reasoning behind, justifications of, and excuses for his desertion by examining his unique moral code. I will accomplish this examination by analyzing the two philosophical works which directly formed his morals – the Bushido Code and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – and by discussing the parallels between Bergdahl’s character, code, and actions and  those of the fictional character Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

*     *     *

         According to Bergdahl, he deserted not because of personal discomfort or disgruntlement; rather, he deserted because he perceived willful, malignant danger in the battalion and company leadership. In his words, “I was seeing… leadership failure to the point that the lives of the guys standing next to me were literally… in danger of something seriously going wrong and somebody being killed” (“Serial”).  Someone clearly needed to do something. But as a private first class – and infantry no less – Bergdahl was the grunt, the groundling, the runt of the Army. If he voiced his perceptions and fears, no superior would heed him, much less believe Bergdahl’s claims that his commanding officer needed psychological evaluation and possibly removal.

         So Bergdahl decided to simply desert his base and reappear at another. Then he could speak with whomsoever he desired – a colonel, general, or government official – and explain the obscurely irrational ratiocination underlying such a drastic measure, thereby alerting the gods and generals to his dangerous battalion leadership. Of course, he knew that upon arrival a military whang-klang would greedily gobble him whole; but he was so utterly convinced of the veracity of his perceptions, and so utterly convinced he was in the right, that unto him the scales were balanced:

I was fully confident that when somebody actually took a look at the situation, and when people started investigating the situation, that people would understand that I was right. You know, what was going on was a danger to the lives of the men in that company. The idea was I’d rather be sitting in Leavenworth than standing over the body of Nascimento or Coe or somebody like that. And understanding that if somebody had done something, they’d still be alive. (“Serial”)

            Obviously, no submarine helmsman opens the hatch full fathom five below the suspiring surface of la mer bleue et magnifique. Those who do so we would rightfully consider insane. The predicament of a soldier in Afghanistan diverges little from this illustration: leave a base, and a soldier might as well be Guildenstern flipping coins en route to Elsinore in Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: heads, he is captured, tails he is safe. Michael Valdovinos, an Army psychologist, puts it this way: “For most of us, it would be… an absolute boundary… even if I’m frustrated with my command, even if I’m frustrated with this mission, frustrated with the army, there’s still something, I think biologically, that’s going to keep us from literally walking off a base” (“Serial”). Self-preservation would normally preserve soldiers from the eminent capture, torture, and possible death inherent to desertion. Yet Bergdahl suffered no such deterrents. He did simply walk off. But how did he do it? How did his claimed impetus suffice to initiate such an awesome action? And why did he feel as though he was the one required to take action?

            To answer these central questions, we need to understand Bergdahl’s substance: his moral code, essentially a fusion – which I call the ‘Bergdahl Synthesis’ – of the Samurai Bushido Code and Randian fanatical libertarianism, i.e. Objectivism. This moral code is unique, potent, and absolutely essential to comprehending Bergdahl, for it defined him. His friends, when asked to describe him, verbally depicted him “as an introspective young man who sometimes painted his fingernails black and identified with Japanese samurai warriors” (McCrummen, italics mine). Furthermore, three days before Bergdahl deserted, he sent his friends an email titled “Who is John Galt.” In the message, he quoted and paraphrased passages from the prolix Randian rant of John Galt – the main character of Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged – as justification for his future actions. Here is the text of that fateful email:

It is not the being of value who fails the system, it is the system that has failed the man. For man should not stoop to fit the system, but the system should be made and remade to fit the man who holds value as worth. I will serve no bandit nor liar, for I know John Galt and understand. This life is too short to serve those who compromise value and its ethics. I am done compromising. (McCrummen)

When his friends received the email, they just thought, “this is Bowe being Bowe” (“Serial”). This quoting of Rand, this obsession with morals, ethics, boundaries, right and wrong: typical Bowe.

         From a young age, then, we see the influence of the ancient Bushido Code of chivalry, and in conjunction with his disappearance, the influence of Rand’s Objectivism. All in all, we behold a constant striving to comprehend the very nature of morality itself that formed Bergdahl and shaped him as a man. Therefore, in order to better understand Bergdahl’s story, we will examine both of these philosophies in turn, and then discuss the ‘Bergdahl Synthesis’.

         The Bushido Code (Thesis):

         Samurai warriors created and practiced the Bushido code. The Bushido Code stresses the Eight Virtues: Rectitude (or Justice), Courage, Benevolence (or Mercy), Politeness, Honesty (and Sincerity), Honor, Loyalty, and Character (including Self-Control). I will briefly describe each aspect:

         “Rectitude is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right” (Clark 3). Rectitude, then, is the power to submit always to reason by recognizing and realizing its directives.

         Confucius defines Courage with a negative: “To see the right and not do it is to lack courage” (Analects 8). Nor is mere bravery Courage. Courage includes bravery, but it is more: it is the strength required to realize the directives of Rectitude, whether popular or not.

         Benevolence tempers Rectitude. “Masamune expressed it well [when he said] … Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; Benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness” (Nitobe 32).

         Politeness is economy of force. In some sense it is the rendering of what is due unto whom it is due, so perhaps we may liken Politeness to a merciful conception of Western Justice: “In its highest form, Politeness approaches love” (Clark 4).

         The Virtue of Honesty serves as an umbrella over the virtues of hardship and abstinence. Luxury was considered the greatest detriment to manhood, and severe simplicity was required of warriors (Clark 5). Of course, Honesty also dealt with matters of truth and falsehood.

            Honor is an awareness of personal value and dignity (Clark 5). Honor involved profound patience, deep humility, and vivid self-value approaching Aristotelian megalopsychia (magnanimity or virtuous pride).     

         The Bushido definition of Loyalty corresponds with our own definition, but its value in Samurai culture greatly exceeds our modern appraisal: “Loyalty was the key-stone making feudal virtues a symmetrical arch…. But it is only in the code of chivalrous Honor that Loyalty assumes paramount importance” (Nitobe 56).

         Lastly, the Bushido code directs men to believe in an absolute standard of morality that transcends logic: “The difference between good and bad and between right and wrong are givens, not arguments subject or discussion or justification” (Clark 6). This is the concept of Character, and the virtue Self-Control – mastery over the body – is its corollary. Samurai culture revered full mastery of the body: young samurai were forced to walk barefoot during the violent winters, read for hours before their breakfast, spend nights in graveyards or without sleep, and watch public executions. These are just a few illustrations of Bushido Self-Control and Character.

         Through these eight virtues, we note that the Bushido Code is not a code of violence and bloodthirst. It is not a quasi-Mongolian morality of mangling. The Bushido Code is a system of honor, virtue, courage and mercy: “to die when it is right to die, to strike when it is right to strike” (Nitobe 22); to kill when it is right to kill, but to spare when right to spare.

         Technically, we have delineated only the Bushido code, but we have also practically delineated Bergdahl’s character. He was benevolent, merciful, loyal, and polite to strangers, to his family, and especially to his friends. For instance, his almost-sister Kayla specifically recalled a birthday card that Bowe authored and – in spite of his fundamental shyness – convinced random folks from Hailey to sign. She comprehensively described Bowe as “gentlemanly” (“Serial”). Furthermore, rectitude, justice, and courage filled Bowe’s heart. He always sought the proper course of action and strained to realize it. He was honest, maintained abnormal self-control, and had paranormally strong character: he slept on box springs, without a mattress, with a hatchet on his chest, while in Alaska with his unit. Bergdahl deeply knew, fully exhibited, and profoundly obeyed the Bushido Code.

         The Bushido Code, however, did not play a singular role in shaping Bergdahl’s character and moral code: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged equally formed his psyche.

         Randian Objectivism (Antithesis):

         “Who is John Galt?”

         So begins the famous sixty-nine-page speech delineating Rand’s Objectivism, which she summarizes as the following: “My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in single axiom:  existence exists—and in a single choice: to live” (Rand 1018). According to Rand, there is “one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence” (1012). Man receives life and, because he is a volitional being, he can choose to accept that life or not. 

         Because existence-nonexistence is the fundamental dichotomy, all values relate to this dichotomy (Rand 1013). Rand believes, a “‘value’ is that which one acts to gain and keep, ‘virtue’ is the action by which one gains and keeps it” (1012). Value presupposes a standard and an environment allowing and enabling choice. Since we choose to exist or not, we choose our values—our moral code. If we have not chosen our values, however, they are not truly values. Rand says “where there are no alternatives, no values are possible”; furthermore, “a code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality” (1012, 1013). Man’s life is the standard of all value; therefore, “all that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil” (1014).  

         This is the foundation, the skeleton, the core of Rand’s philosophy; all else rests atop it. And after constructing this frame, she proceeds to the meat, the personal. She first states that your life is the standard of your value: “Your life belongs to you and… the good is to live it” (Rand 1012). Good and evil, then, are purely physical terms relating directly to our personal eudemonia (flourishing). She then recognizes that “you do not have to live; it is your basic act of choice” (1015). But if you choose to live, “you must live as a man [or woman]—by the work and the judgement of your mind” (1015). You must forge a code that declares your life as the ultimate value and rests upon reason.

         Rand continues: “The most depraved sentence you can now utter is to ask: Whose reason? The answer is Yours…. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal…. Your mind is your only judge of truth—and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal” (Rand 1017). This statement – “reality is the court of final appeal” – is of paramount importance to Bergdahl’s situation. Rand, earlier, says something similar: “something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists” (1015). And again she states: “the mind is one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide of action” (1018). This concept of perception, of mind, assumes a prominence approaching that of nous (intellect) in Plotinus’ Neoplatonism. But Objectivist nous is not emanated by the One, but by the one—the individual man or woman whose life is the nexus of their personal, absolute moral code. Perception and reason are synonymous, necessary to interpreting the raw data amassed by our senses. 

         Rand then catalogs virtues similar to those of the Bushido code, but more egocentric: Rationality, Independence, Integrity, Honesty, Justice, Productiveness, and Pride.

         Rationality “is the recognition… that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence of that act of perceiving it, which is thinking”; Independence is “the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgement”; Integrity is “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness”; Honesty is “the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud”; Justice is “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men… that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with… respect for truth”; Productiveness is the “acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live”; and Pride is “the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man’s values, it has to be earned” (Rand 1018-1020).  

         As if this were not controversial enough, Rand goes on to state that “it is hard to say who is more contemptible: the brute who assumes the right to force the mind of others or the moral degenerate who grants to others the right to force his mind” (Rand 1023).

         In other words, leave me alone.

         This idea of individual sovereignty, the fact that “you are your own highest value” is nearly identical to the political philosophy of Robert Nozick. He states that justice consists of three facets:

  1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
  2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
  3. No one is entitled to a holding except by… applications of 1 and 2…. (Nozick 315).

He also states, “Whoever makes something, having bought or contracted for all other held resources used in the process (transferring some of this holdings for these cooperating factors) is entitled to it” (317). This in turn conjures Rand’s rhetorical question: “Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None—except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality” (Rand 1022). For Nozick and Rand, then, anything that you deserve is yours. And you deserve anything which is a part of yourself, whether yourself itself, or things which you have created, or purchased, or won, or earned—in other words, anything which you rationally acquired.

         Nozick and Rand are speaking, superficially, on different levels: Nozick is tackling the terrible trouble of establishing and stipulating distributive justice in the market place and political spectrum; Rand is defeating the dire dilemma of establishing the existential epicleti: good, evil, right, wrong, and the meaning of life. But their message is the same: you are your own, your own is your own, you are who you are, and you are no other than your own. Rand writes, “The achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness – not pain or mindless self-indulgence – is the proof of your moral integrity” (Rand 1059).


         These two philosophies, or codes, resemble one another per accidens, but diverge radically in essence. For instance, both emphasize individuality and personal fortitude. They both uphold specific tenets, or virtues, such as honesty, honor, justice, pride, valor, courage, and rectitude. And yet, despite their commonalities, a chasm yawns between them. The Bushido Code stresses a certain illogicality, a certain metaphysicality and mysteriousness, a certain, profound concern for others that simply does not appear in Objectivism. On the other hand, Objectivism stresses a rabid atomism that directly conflicts with the Bushido Code’s tempered approach to society’s obligations on the individual and the individual’s rights within society. In extreme simplification, the Bushido Code is directed towards others and Objectivism directed towards the self.

         Take, for instance, the concept of sacrifice. The Bushido Code proclaims the honor of sacrifice, even unto hari-kari or seppuku—the glorious, literal disembowelment of oneself. Rand, on the other hand, calls sacrifice “the word… that has destroyed you…. [S]acrifice is the surrender of the right to the wrong, of the good to the evil. The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral” (Rand 1028, 1029). What is honorable, right, and glorified, according to Rand, is that which promotes your own happiness: “happiness is man’s only moral purpose…. Life is the reward of virtue—and happiness is the goal and the reward of life” (1021). She writes, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live” (1014).

         Another key battle occurs over the very nature of morality itself. Rand argues that morality equates to values which rationality can and does grasp:

Man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking…. [R]ationality is a matter of choice… Man… has to hold his life as a value—by choice… he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality. (Rand 1013)

Bushido, on the other hand, stems from Buddhism and Shintoism. It sustains and nurtures its roots implying that Bushido was a practical code for practical usages until the warrior reached Zen or enlightenment (Nitobe18). According to Nitobe, “A foremost teacher of the swordsmanship, when he saw his pupil master the utmost of his art, told him, ‘Beyond this my instruction must give way to Zen teaching’” (18). Objectivity preaches, then, that morality is reached by the rational, logical application of the mind. The other code preaches that morality lies beyond sensible phenomena because it underlies all phenomena.

           After investigating only two conflicts, these codes appear irreconcilable—yet Bergdahl managed to integrate these two distinct, conflicting codes into one unique amalgamation. How did he do so? And what did it look like?

         The Bergdahl Synthesis:

          Romantic, stubborn, imaginative, creative, gentlemanly, unfulfilled, earnest, dogmatic, fact-driven, sacrificial: these are all terms that apply to Bergdahl and can be traced to either Bushido or Objectivism, the moral systems that shaped and defined Bergdahl’s own unique code.

         But there’s the rub.

         How did Bergdahl, a man of rationality as meticulous as Heller’s Yossarian’s Orr’s mechanical skills (in the novel Catch-22), manage to combine two moral theories that do not comport?

           I hypothesize that Bergdahl adopted first the Bushido Code and other, similar theories of chivalry, valor, bravery, and fortitude. Books about soldiers, fighting, and adventure were young Bowe’s tales of choice when he desired entertainment, and these would doubtless have saturated his mind with bold deeds of bravery. Such tenets as sacrifice and humility, found in codes of chivalry but never in Objectivism, would have found permanent lodging in his impressionable brain. Late-coming contradictory concepts like Objectivist selfishness would have found no room in the inn. Meanwhile, other Objectivist fundaments, such as coldblooded rationality and calculation, would have found no counterpart in the chivalrous codes. They would have found their potential room uninhabited and untouched.

         But I believe another, more complex and philosophical process is at work here: a process of discovery beginning at an ‘original position’ similar to John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (Rawls 326). For Bergdahl had no concept of morality in conversation with others before he met the Harrisons, his adopted and adopting family. And he had few if any presuppositions concerning the proper modes of social justice and morality. Thus his quest for and discovery of conversational morality was one of exploring uncharted lands.

         But there was a difference in this particular operation of the Veil from a pure application of the Veil. The Harrison family was a preexistent society, a preexistent “cooperative venture for mutual advantage” (Rawls 326) that was not to be conformed to Bergdahl’s conceptions of justice in the original position; rather, Bergdahl’s discoveries within the original position were to be conformed to the society of the Harrison family. This meant that Bergdahl was able to search for morality and right-conduct without preconceived notions of how to properly conduct relationships and converse with fellow beings. He was free to haphazardly incorporate ideas from disparate, conflicting philosophies in an attempt to find morality. But his morality, in the end, no matter his efforts, was limited to fitting-in. Of course, after he fit in, he was free to probe the deeper, existential questions. By then, however, he was no longer in the original position.

         As he matured, he kept his profound sense of chivalry, respect, and decency because they were respected. He learned that actions farther afield, such as taping his own mouth shut, relentlessly arguing (“Serial”), were annoying and intolerable. He realized that sacrifice of a self was noble – clearly the influence of Bushido – but sacrifice of the code was intolerable, in fact the greatest of all evils—clearly the influence of Atlas Shrugged. Bergdahl retained his notions of emotions as beautiful and valid lenses by which to view the world. He wrote, “I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside. I will not lose this passion of beauty” and “remember. REMEMBER. Imagination. Realness. To dream. The Universes. REMEMBER. Cold. Swift. Clear. Calm. Logic. Nothingness. Die here. Become empty here” (McCrummen). But he vowed to temper his emotions with reason: “These thoughts have placed themselves in my head. In my protection… I will try to use what little time this life gives me, to bring their beauty into the world…. This is the story teller’s life” (McCrummen).

         However, he could never reconcile the essences, the depths of these codes. On one hand, the Bushido code glorified death, and on the other hand, Objectivism valued Life as the end of all morality. The Bushido code commanded to strive always to subject the world to morality, no matter the cost, while Objectivism commanded its followers to let the unenlightened stew in their own mess.

         In sum, then, all his efforts to discover and define true morality was originally and severely limited by the necessity of finding his place in a society rather than finding the morality and reshaping the society to conform. His efforts were further, and more drastically, limited by the inevitable failure of such an impossible juxtaposition.

         However, this did not deter Bergdahl from attempting to mold society according to his vision of truth and morals. But this is where he crashed upon the rocks.

*     *     *

         Bergdahl is a vivid character, and his code of morality was a mixture of two potent philosophies of morality. This gaseous mixture engendered a compound noxious and oily, waiting for a light. Another thing about gasses: they expand, they fill empty spaces and inflate. And these gasses, these fumes of this vivid-potent mixture emanating, smoothly emitting from these iron codes, filled Bergdahl and tumefied his empty-aching heart and soul. Under orders from the Bushido Code to die if necessary while realizing the directives of reason and justice, and under direction of Objectivism to “live on the fringes of this world as a guard” (McCrummen) and pursue existence and Life to the last breath, Bergdahl was, to say the least, confused.

         Consider the following statements from Bergdahl’s journal:

Bullet sponges. This is what some of the SEALs call regular Army and other mass ground troops. Its right, the job of a solder is basically to die.

Really, how pathetic i [sic] feel as i [sic] listen to people talk of the hell I will be heading to…. Compared to hell of the real wars of the past, we are nothing but camping boy scots [sic]. Hiding from children behind our heavy armored trucks and our c-wire and sand bagged operating post, we tell our selves [sic] that we are not cowards.

I want to change so much and all the time, but then my mind just locks down, as if there was some one [sic] else in my mind shutting the door in my face….

I will try to use what little time this life gives me, to bring their beauty into the world…. (McCrummen)

These entries illustrate a young man deeply torn between opposing duties, contradicting commands, between life and death. These entries illustrate a young man deeply torn and therefore unstable: a divided house cannot stand. Compounded by his schizotypal personality disorder (“Serial”), Bergdahl was a ticking time bomb. And the noxious fumes kept hissing, emanating, blinding his vision and inflating his heart until POP! Something exploded, snapped, and Bergdahl cracked. Suddenly, as if by divine revelation, he knew that he and he alone must save his fellow soldiers, his friends, and perhaps the entire United States military mission in Afghanistan.

         This explosion resembles the transformation of the fictional character Rodion Raskolnikov, from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov believes himself to be a smart, talented, and gifted young man who has theories and ideas that will drag the future into the present. Specifically, he has written an article delineating his revolutionary Extraordinary Man Theory. In the article, he implies that certain Extraordinary Men, quite distinct from the average Ordinary Man, have the right, even the obligation, to do whatever necessary to achieve ends beneficial for society. As he explains,

I believe that if certain if circumstances prevented the discovery of a Kepler or a Newton from becoming known except through the sacrifice of a man’s life, or of ten, or a hundred, or as many as you please, who prevented this discovery or blocked its path as an obstacle, Newton would have the right, he would be obliged… to remove these then men, or these hundred…. I conclude, in brief, that not only great men, but even those who are just a little out of the common ruck – those, I mean, who have something the least little bit new to say – must absolutely by their very nature be criminals. (Dostoevsky, 257)

         Bergdahl believed, consciously or unconsciously, that he was an Extraordinary Man. He wrote about “this hell that pools so many fools, and they are all part of the illusion” (McCrummen). Bergdahl pondered “what good am I, my existence is that of exile. To live on the fringes of this world as a guard” (McCrummen). He, like Raskolnikov, saw himself solely as he wished.

         Just as this clouded self-vision of grandeur induced Raskolnikov to murder an old woman in cold blood for the common good, so Bergdahl convinced himself that he must desert and alert for the common good. Unable to see himself for who he was – an athletic, hardworking private – Bergdahl painted a portrait of himself as Jason Bourne, Jackie Chan, or Kung Fu. He drew wings upon himself, and then like Icarus flew too near the sun. Drastic roots bear drastic branches bear drastic fruit. When “you permit bloodshed according to conscience” (Dostoevsky 260), there are wacky, chilling consequences.

         Lastly, throughout Crime and Punishment an implicit feeling whispers that, just perhaps, Raskolnikov killed the old woman simply because he required money and begrudged her wealth and abrasive personality. That he killed her not for the good of society but for the good of himself, and only afterwards did he re-spin the tapestry of his crimes with a more aesthetic palate. Crime and Punishment oozes this heinous specter of unredeemable guilt. Similarly with the Bergdahl case: what if he didn’t really run away purposing to salvage the welfare of his fellow soldiers? What if he was really just disillusioned or bored, or tired or angry? After all, as a platoon mate of Bergdahl spoke about Bergdahl’s proposed justifications of his desertion: “he had some years to work on that” (“Serial”).

         In the end, Crime and Punishment indirectly relates to the case itself, and the hauntingly apt parallels shed a remarkable light on Bergdahl’s predicament and actions. We see that Bergdahl’s essentially incoherent moral code tore him in two and addled his psyche until he snapped under the weight of his own imagined grandeur. This comparison to Crime and Punishment also raises an interesting question. In the event of a clash between men, such as Raskolnikov and the investigator, and their dogmas and morals, such as the decorum of society and the Extraordinary Man Theory, who wins? The strongest? Probably. But who ought to win? Now that is an entirely different question. For instance, when the Army and Bergdahl clashed, whose values are correct? Whose morals are proper? Whose vision of reality is real?

         Joel Feinberg in his book The Moral Limits of Criminal Law argues that liberals ought to be dogmatic about certain beliefs, such as their individuality and morality respecting atomistic rights. Though neither Samurai, nor Rand, nor Bergdahl are liberals, Feinberg’s perspective implies an unprecedented state of affairs: liberals arguing that liberals, who are often the least dogmatic of philosophers in the fields of politics and law, ought to be dogmatic. It makes me wonder that, if liberals ought to be dogmatic, what ought conservatives, reactionaries, and Objectivists be? The point is, if we all entrench ourselves in our own maxims and Maginots, who compromises or surrenders? How do we stop WWIII?

         Feinberg neither answers this question nor acknowledges it. But Alasdair MacIntyre swaddles the matter in a book titled, fittingly and creatively enough, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? We will examine his arguments in the following segment, but on a level deeper even than morality. We will touch on rationality – the ability to know – and on the known—which is the nature of reality itself.

*     *     *

         Recall Rand’s statement: “reality is the court of final appeal” (Rand 1017). Also recall, “something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists” (1015). Finally recall: “the mind is one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide of action” (1018). This begs the question: Whose values? Whose perceptions?

         In the case of Bergdahl or Raskolnikov, who have singular moralities in deep conflict with the moralities of others, whose morality is compromised? What morality is the trump suit? Whose is the weaker? More importantly, whose morality ought to be compromised, and whose morality ought to trump? In other words, whose reality is the final appeal? We are now wading into the dangerous depths of meta-values and metaethics—a Slough of Despond I would like to avoid. Instead, let us examine a concrete example: the disparities between Bergdahl’s reality and Everyone Else’s reality.

         Bergdahl perceived threat and doom in the words and actions of his commanders. No one else did. So who was right? If the very fabric of reality itself differed, what reality was the court of final appeal? What meta-reality could settle the dispute? We can rationally assume that no commander in the United States’ Armed Forces would premeditatively and volitionally harm the soldiers commanded. We can make an appeal to reason.

Yet someone who tries to learn this at once encounters the fact that disputes about the nature of rationality in general and about practical rationality in particular are apparently as manifold and as intractable as disputes about justice. (MacIntyre 337)

In other words, there is no appeal to reason. But what about reality? The difficulty is that Bergdahl changed reality by running away. Any attempt to reconstruct that reality is actually an exercise in rationality—to which there is no appeal. In the end, we see the philosophical impossibility of qualifying the Army’s or Bergdahl’s reality on their own terms.

         However, as a side note, I do not think the case is actually that complicated. Simply put, since Bergdahl signed the papers and joined the Army, he ceded all authority – even his visions of reality – to his commander. Once he submitted to the rules, I believe he was bound to follow them.

*     *     *

         In conclusion, I believe that the friction between the Bushido Code of “serve others even unto death, realize all directives of reason even unto death” and the Objectivism of “serve your life first, realize all directives of reason because they lead to life” caused Bergdahl to overheat and collapse beneath the strain of carrying such a gargantuan load. He faced the task of reconciling two distinct moral codes—one more than humanly possible. Bergdahl held the world to an impossible standard and likewise held himself unconsciously to an equally unconscionable standard. He made himself into Atlas, holding up the world of morality. He perceived injustice, suffering, and mistakes, and cried out against them. In the end, then, Atlas did not shrug: Atlas roared. But in so doing, he stumbled beneath the strain. 


Works Cited

Beauchamp, Tom L., compiler. Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Clark, Tim. “The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues of the Samurai.” Art of Manliness, 1 Nov. 2018,

Confucius. Analects. Translated by Robert Eno, 2015. Indiana University,

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Signet Classic, 1968.

Feinberg, Joel. Harmless Wrongdoing. Oxford UP, 1988.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? 1988 ed., U Notre Dame P.

McCrummen, Stephanie. “Bergdahl’s Writings Reveal a Fragile Young Man.” Washington Post, 11 June 2014.

Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York, Basic Books, 1974.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Plume, 1999.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard UP, 1971.

“Serial”: Season Two. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, produced by “Serial” Productions, WBEZ Chicago. Transcript.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York, Grove Press, 1967.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.