Napoleon might once have quipped that armies march on their stomachs, but what ties together a fighting force is the bonds of comradeship and loyalty among the individual soldiers. Elite military units have translated this sense of brotherhood into “leave no man behind, living or dead” a concept that is as old as the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks assiduously collected the fallen to give them a proper burial and to sacrifice to the gods on their behalf while the Romans even deducted a portion of their soldiers pay to fund the burials and accompanying feasts to celebrate their fallen comrades. Most European armies of the nineteenth century likewise made it a point of honor to leave no one behind, in a war zone either dead or wounded, a principle that the United States Army and Marine Corps have shared.
Be that as it may, the United States has been all too prone to fight unnecessary wars but assiduous in honoring its soldiers by bringing them all home living or dead with the significant exception of Vietnam, where as many as 1,500 American prisoners might well have been left behind for purely political reasons. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger wanted to declare the war over and asserted that all captives had been returned. It was a statement that contradicted what Nixon had said only months before and it should be hoped that the former president is currently toasting in Dante’s ninth level of the Inferno, the final resting place of traitors. Hopefully Kissinger will someday join him there.
Given the unconventional nature of the two most recent wars in Asia, no American soldiers were left behind in Iraq and there is only one prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in June 2009 and he has largely become a forgotten man as his time in captivity has grown ever longer. His story has some unusual aspects, a tale that in some respects reflects the ambiguities of fighting wars where there is no clear national interest coupled with the unfortunate transformation of some in the United States who seek to justify America’s never ending wars by blaming the numerous victims of the conflict. Bergdahl, together with the many other soldiers killed or maimed, is as much a victim of Washington’s destructive global war on terror as the numerous civilians killed by drones or the Taliban and the continued carnage in “liberated” Iraq.
Bowe Bergdahl, an Idaho native, is an unusual young man. By all accounts he was adventurous, sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean while still in his teens, seriously religious, had traveled in Europe, and was so interested in Afghanistan and its people that he read every book he could find on the subject and began learning the local languages. He was a private first class in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 25th Infantry Division, stationed in a remote area in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province, close to the border with Pakistan. The unit was in a dangerous area, taking regular casualties from improvised explosive devices. It was also notorious for its bad morale and poor leadership at all levels, with many officers and sergeants being disciplined and rotating in and out in a vain attempt to fix the problem.
Bergdahl went missing on June 30th, 2009 and was subsequently the subject of a Taliban video in which he spoke that featured him in uniform and described him as a prisoner of war. The circumstances surrounding his ending up in enemy hands are not completely clear. Fellow soldiers from the 501st mostly believe that Bergdahl just walked away from the small outpost. But the U.S. Army has said only that he was unarmed and outside the base perimeter with three Afghan soldiers when the four men were seized by insurgents probably linked to the Haqqani network, which has been responsible for numerous attacks on both Afghan civilian and NATO soldiers. Bergdahl is believed to be imprisoned just over the Pakistani border and is officially categorized as missing/captured. He has even been promoted based on time-in-grade while a prisoner, which is why he is now a sergeant. In the Taliban video released after his capture, clearly scripted by his captors, an obviously distraught Bergdahl says that he was lagging behind his patrol when he was taken, which is clearly not true. Shortly after Bergdahl’s capture a WikiLeaks report indicated that Marine units in adjacent provinces in Afghanistan began to carry their weapons when going to the base latrines, which are often outside the base security perimeter, suggesting that at least some U.S. soldiers believed that that was how and where he was captured unarmed.
Bergdahl has appeared in five Taliban produced videos, all of which appear to be coerced. He is visibly nervous in all five, does not move from his seat, and, in the most recent one, does not look to be in good health. He said in the first one “To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here, who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” a typical line fed to prisoners of war in every conflict since Korea. The video has a number of other inconsistencies typical of a speech being read from a prepared script, including a claim that Bergdahl is now helping the Taliban make bombs, which the Pentagon regards as crude propaganda. Bergdahl has also reportedly escaped twice, most recently for ten days in September 2010, only to be recaptured. Trying to escape is hardly an indication that he joined the Taliban voluntarily.
So Bergdahl might have been captured or he might have just walked away from the war which he had come to despise, a tale somewhat similar to Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War era best selling novel “Going After Cacciato,” which describes the odyssey of a soldier who put down his rifle and one day walked off. Emails sent to Bergdahl’s family shortly before he disappeared indicate that he was deeply disillusioned with the war itself and with the U.S. policies in the region. This was not then and is not now uncommon among the soldiers in most wars who are doing the actual fighting since they see close up how the military option to bring “freedom” is a chimera. Bergdahl’s road to Damascus moment reportedly began when he observed his fellow soldiers ridiculing the Afghans, who, not speaking English, were unable to understand how they were being insulted by their “liberators.” The disillusionment culminated in Bergdahl’s watching an Afghan child being crushed to death by an army vehicle.
Possibly due to his alienation from what he was experiencing, Bergdahl was immediately condemned as a deserter by some of the ubiquitous experts that the media uses when it runs out of things to say. One of the most vitriolic attacks on Berghdal was initiated by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters on FOX. Colonel Peters calls Bergdahl a deserter and expressed his desire that “…the Taliban should do us a favor and execute this soldier…[they] can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.” The clip is worth watching as even the Fox news moderator appears shocked by Peters’ over-the-top bile. The truly ironic aspect of Peters’ hardass performance is that his bio suggests that he has never himself been in combat or even close to it. He joined the army after Vietnam was over and served as an intelligence officer for most of his career before retiring. His assessments of Iraq and other zones of conflict for the media have frequently been wrong. Peters considers himself by self-definition a true red blooded patriot and he has also, inter alia, called for the assassination of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame because Assange has committed “crimes against humanity.”
Michelle Malkin also predictably chimed in supporting the suggestions of desertion. The trial by media is significant as it has poisoned the waters and may have influenced the level of effort that the government has been willing to put in to try to recover Bergdahl. The Bergdahl family has opposed a rescue mission as too dangerous, though it does appear that one attempt by navy seals may have been attempted, and has instead backed an exchange, which the Taliban had proposed soon after Bergdahl was captured. Reportedly, a deal was in the works exchanging Bergdahl for five Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo, but, by various accounts, either the Taliban or the White House (or both) balked at the arrangement. As President Obama once vowed to close Guantanamo it might have been a good way to bring home America’s only known prisoner of war in a conflict that everyone, not just Bergdahl, would now like to walk away from.
I am not trying to whitewash Bergdahl in any way. If he indeed voluntarily left his unit in a combat zone, he could have placed his comrades at risk and has to face the consequences even if the war he was fighting in is itself morally indefensible. But the United States government must honor its commitment to bring him home and he must be allowed his day in court. The Army has not said he deserted presumably because it is not convinced that he did so. And in all probability the only one who actually knows what happened on that June day in 2009 is Bergdahl himself. It is fashionable in some circles to regard soldiers as baby killers and to blame them for decisions made in Congress and the White House, but that kind of simplification is one dimensional and does not reflect the complexity of real life decision making. Many Americans have become soldiers in the past twelve years because they have been fed a steady diet of misinformation by the media and believe it is the right and patriotic thing to do. Others join the service because they have no opportunities at home in an economy in which the have-nots continue to increase in number as the haves thrive on the profits of war. For them, ordinary people are little more than an inconvenient afterthought at best or cannon fodder at worst. I would like to think that Bergdahl should neither be demonized as a possible deserter nor praised as a prisoner of conscience. He should instead be seen as a victim and every effort should be made to bring him home. In one of his emails to his family Bergdahl reportedly wrote of his disenchantment with the war: “The future is too good to waste on lies.” Indeed. I couldn’t have said it better myself.