Looking back now, it seems odd to me that I did not first hear of Bowe Bergdahl from the news. At the time of his capture, back in June of 2009, I listened to NPR, a LOT. Yet I don’t recall hearing his name. Considering the media circus that has arisen since he was released from Taliban custody in May of 2014, the limited reporting of his story during his captivity seems strikingly silent.
I happened upon the story through my research, when I clicked on this YouTube video the Taliban released after Bergdahl was captured. I found this not long after Rolling Stones published Michael Hastings’ report on Bergdahl in 2012. I read that article with much interest, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. I was captivated by the story of a disillusioned young man who apparently decided to simply walk away from war. Of course, only Bergdahl himself could really say if this was what happened that night in 2009, and at that time, he was still being held prisoner by the Taliban.
Hastings’ article describes Bergdahl as a restless young man, ready to explore and experience a life bigger than he could find in his small hometown in Idaho. He says Bergdahl liked survival manuals, and the TV show Man Vs. Wild. Hastings quotes Bergdahl’s father, Robert Bergdahl, as saying, “He (Bowe) is Bear Grylls in his own mind.” The article goes on to mention that Bergdahl attempted to enlist in the French Foreign Legion and briefly entertained a desire to go to Africa to help villagers targeted by militias learn self defence. Curiously, Hastings leaves out the reports of Bergdahl’s extremely brief stint in the Coast Guard two years before he enlisted in the Army, as reported in this article:
‘He did join in early 2006 and he did enter boot camp training,’ Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak confirmed to USA Today. ‘He left after 26 days…with an uncharacterized discharge.’
No further explanation of this discharge was offered, although other reports attribute the discharge to psychological reasons. Bergdahl enlisted in the Army in the spring of 2008, and in March of 2009, his unit deployed to the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan.
Sean Smith, of the Guardian, spent a short time embedded with Bergdahl’s unit before Bergdahl disappeared. His video footage from that time seems to show some of the discipline and morale issues later reported in the unit by Hastings and others. He described Bergdahl in a brief article as follows:
‘Bowe was particularly thoughtful. Its a long time to be in that situation, and though I didn’t get to know him very well I’d think if anyone was equipped to deal with it, he was probably one of them. He wasn’t the sort who saw everyone as good guys or bad guys.’
Bowe Bergdahl was rescued from Taliban custody on May 31, 2014. This rescue was not some spectacular midnight raid of an isolated Taliban fortress by special forces, but rather was the result of negotiations that had been going on for years. The United States agreed to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom. And this would set off a fire storm of debate and angry vitriol in Washington D.C. and the media.
I think for many Americans, this may have been the first introduction into the controversies surrounding Bergdahl. At this point, the question of whether or not Bergdahl had intentionally deserted his post in Afghanistan had not had as much play time in the mainstream media. But much was made of the decision to trade five Taliban prisoners for one American, as well as the rushed and seemingly secretive way the deal happened.
According to this USA Today poll from June 10, 2014, just nine days after Bergdahl’s rescue,
Public opposition to the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has less to do with Bergdahl himself and more with how President Obama handled the transfer, according to a new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll.
In fact it hadn’t been a rushed deal, and the debate over the deal had been going on for some time. Michael Hastings wrote in his Rolling Stones article, a full two years before Bergdahl was even freed as a result of the prisoner swap:
‘The Hill is giving State and the White House shit,’ says one senior administration source. ‘The political consequences are being used as leverage in the policy debate.’ According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president’s opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. ‘They keep telling me it’s going to be Obama’s Willie Horton moment, Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president’s political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. In response, a White House official advised Grossman that he should ignore the politics of the swap and concentrate solely on the policy.
What had already long been an ugly debate in D.C. erupted in the media after Bergdahl’s release, instantly becoming a divisive debate as talking heads took their usual sides on the left or the right. Some railed against the choice of the Taliban prisoners, reporting that they were top level militants who had killed Americans and would surely return to the battlefield to kill more. The fact that President Obama did not give Congress 30 days notice of the swap was another point of contention, both on Capitol Hill and in the media.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said the swap was illegal because Obama didn’t give Congress the required 30-day notice before transferring detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The requirement is in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act.
‘The president has released, illegally, arguably the five most vicious, serious Taliban terrorists,’ Inhofe said. ‘Sure they’re happy to have him home,’ he said of Bergdahl’s family, but ‘you weigh that against the circumstances that will present themselves by five terrorists out killing Americans.’
Judge Napolitano on Fox News went so far as to say that President Obama should be arrested for “providing material assistance to the Taliban.” It appeared to be a growing sentiment among the public.
Others pointed out the importance of not leaving any of our military personnel behind as the war came to an end (no, seriously, it was supposedly coming to an end at that time, according to the media and the politicians) and that prisoner swaps had been a part of ending wars for ages. As this article points out:
‘…time is running out for those who believe that Guantánamo is a place where they can hold people forever without due process, and that John Bellinger is correct to point out that, with the drawdown of U.S. troops at the end of the year, it will no longer be acceptable under international law for Taliban prisoners to continue to be held.’
‘If this deployment is lame…I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.’
Before he became a Taliban prisoner, before he wrote in his journal “I am the lone wolf of deadly nothingness,” before he joined the Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons, said close friends who were worried about his emotional health at the time.
The 2006 discharge and a trove of Bergdahl’s writing — his handwritten journal along with essays, stories and e-mails provided to The Washington Post — paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
The Washington Post, June 11, 2014
MATTHEW FARWELL: Yeah, and, you know, that was one of the biggest things that disturbed me so much about this whole story and that really got me thinking it must be something, is it’s unprecedented to have an entire brigade—3,500 people have to sign a nondisclosure agreement about pretty much their entire tour in Afghanistan when they come back home. And so, these guys have bottled up this emotion. I’ve spoken with them.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain that, signing a confidentiality agreement to protect? I mean, what was the reason given?
MATTHEW FARWELL: The official reasons was that if they said anything about Bowe Bergdahl, it could, you know, hurt him or possibly cause him to be further mistreated by the Taliban or the Haqqani Network. But, to me, having served in the Army both as a trigger puller and then as a desk jockey at a four-star general’s headquarters, it seemed like it was an exercise in covering the Army’s butt and, you know, trying to not make themselves and this war look as bad as it was.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the soldiers being told not to say anything—
MATTHEW FARWELL: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —having to sign confidentiality agreements. What about the media?
MATTHEW FARWELL: Well, that’s the other funny thing, is how complicit the media was with this. I’ve spoken with the White House official that was in charge of coordinating the media response and kind of ensuring that no one in the media spoke out or wrote about this. And frankly, you know, he managed to snow a lot of the people in the media…
‘I think Gene Fidell [Bergdahl’s attorney] decided it was time to get his client’s side out,’ Gittins [a former military defense attorney] said. ‘While the lawyers are limited in what they can do, the client is not.’
The public airing of Bergdahl’s side of the story may create an additional challenge for the Army, as it will make it even more difficult to ensure that the jurors selected for the court-martial remain impartial and unaffected by the Bergdahl narrative as it continues to unfold on Serial, Gittins said.
The podcast also may affect widespread public perception of Bergdahl’s case. On the internet forum Reddit, a discussion of the first Serial episode showed a broadening variety of perspectives on Bergdahl in the military community, which has overwhelmingly condemned him until now.
Bergdahl opted to defer his plea in his first court appearance, and he is scheduled back in court next month. The Serial podcast will resume next month as well, and more details of his terrible ordeal will emerge, unfortunately through a source who’s motives I find questionable. I’m sure there will also be more reporting on the military personnel who were effected by the search operations for Bergdahl as well as the court-martial begins, especially if their stories come out in a book and movie. The media will undoubtedly keep spinning it as a left versus right political issue as election coverage ramps up. And no doubt, it certainly remains a compelling story, which I clearly felt the need to write about at length.
But what I find most compelling in all of this, is how, in our ongoing national conversation, we are all failing to ask what I see as the most important question of all. It isn’t whether or not Bergdahl is a traitor who put the lives of fellow soldiers at risk, and it isn’t whether his freedom is worth the release of five Taliban members. The question is how are we ignoring that, with our silence, we have allowed our leaders to put these young men and women into the situation that resulted in all of this? We bought the lies that led us into these wars, repeatedly. We continue to allow them to send our children off to fight, to die, to suffer the consequences of the devastating trauma, for the profit of themselves and their cronies. We continue to allow them to use returning soldiers to further their political agendas in the all-too-complicit media. We jump to take sides based on our own political beliefs, arguing, name-calling, and finger-pointing when we should be examining our tacit support for these wars of aggression. We should be asking our “free press” why they continue to spout the lies, supporting the wars and promoting militarism. We should be supporting our youth, giving them better options than fighting in a war we don’t even understand, and that we largely ignore.