A Different Take on Bowe Bergdahl – posted 6/9/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/12/2014
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on June 12, 2014 under the title “Opinions on Bergdahl Too Often Stated as Fact.” Jon
I have been shocked at the amount of hatred unleashed against Bowe Bergdahl and his parents. I was driving to work after the prisoner swap, listening to Boston sports talk radio. One of the early morning show hosts stated Bergdahl was a worthless traitor as if that was an uncontroverted fact. There has been an avalanche of sentiments of that type.
You would not have thought Bergdahl was a POW for five years. Now we are finding out he was tortured after he tried to escape captivity. The New York Times reported that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time.
Critics of Bergdahl have called him a deserter, mentally ill, anti-American, a jihadist, and a warrior for Islam. One Fox News commentator said the Taliban could have saved the United States money on legal bills if they had executed him. Bergdahl’s parents have also received death threats.
How commentators know so much about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s separation from his unit and his capture remain a mystery. Just like how other commentators know that the five released Taliban prisoners are “the worst of the worst”.
Speculation becomes rampant when political agendas try to shape perception. Before the prisoner swap, the best information we had about Bergdahl was the 2012 story written by Michael Hastings that appeared in Rolling Stone.
Hastings article described a person very different from any stereotype. Bergdahl grew up near Hailey Idaho, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His parents home-schooled him. He was a free-spirited kid who loved dirt bikes and boys’ adventure stories. His parents are devout Calvinists very concerned about ethical issues.
As a teenager, Bergdahl developed a passion for fencing. He also took up ballet where he met a girl friend. He dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. He actually travelled to Paris and started to learn French but his application to join the French Foreign Legion was rejected.
Bergdahl remained interested in a military career. He enlisted in the army. He was a reader. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl surrounded himself with piles of books including Three Cups of Tea about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hastings said that unlike others in his training unit, Bergdahl was more likely to hang out in Barnes and Nobles than a strip club.
Hastings goes on to say that after getting to Afghanistan, Bergdahl became disgusted with the war and the general incompetence of his unit. He had sincerely wanted to help Afghans but he did not see that going on. He gravitated away from his unit and he became more psychologically isolated. He had seen an Afghan child get run over by an armored vehicle.
Hastings speculated that the trauma of seeing an Afghan child run over had a big impact on Bergdahl. He quoted from an email Bergdahl had written: “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down on the dirt streets with our armored trucks…We make fun of them in front of their faces and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
I would offer an alternative speculation for why Bergdahl walked away. He was disgusted by the war. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl did not see the American war effort as an attempt to win Afghan hearts and minds. Possibly he was just a sensitive, idealistic guy who was horrified by a senseless war.
I think much of the criticism of Bergdahl reflects misguided militarism and jingoism. In the 21st century, we should be far down the road from gung-ho soldiers with John Wayne fantasies who never doubt and who blindly follow orders. The 20th century provides many horrible examples of the “I was just following orders” variety.
There has been a too cavalier acceptance of all the wars the United States has engaged since Vietnam. There have been so many. Maybe we should be questioning that – not focussing so much attention on what Bergdahl did or did not do.
Bergdahl’s situation made me flash on Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun and Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July. Bergdahl is a different variant but it is so premature to be drawing the type of hateful criticism we have seen. How many of these armchair generals criticizing Bergdahl and his parents ever enlisted or put themselves in the type of dangerous situation Bergdahl did?
If the military eventually decides Bergdahl violated any military law, he should face military justice. Still, he also deserves due process of law and the presumption of innocence. That is the American way – not unsupported slander.