Is US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a traitor or a martyr, a coward who walked away from his unit or a symbol of how a misconceived war used US soldiers as pawns in a losing geo-political game?
This is going to be the issue as the prisoner swap with the Taliban takes incoming fire from Republicans like John McCain and others opposed to "negotiating with terrorists." Yet the real issue goes deeper than that: Bergdahl was profoundly disillusioned by the war, and his capture by the Taliban would never had occurred if he hadn’t walked off base – in plain language, deserted, as this 2012 Rolling Stone piece by Michael Hastings makes clear. In his last email to his parents, sent just before he walked, Bergdahl wrote:
“The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”
Bergdahl goes on at length, indicting a military system that punished competent soldiers and rewarded the "conceited brown-nose shitbag" who’s "allowed to do whatever [he] wants." In spite of his pro-military outlook, which had prompted him to join up in the first place, he realized he had joined "the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies." Bergdahl was no anti-military hippie: he’d long wanted to be a soldier and even tried to join the French Foreign Legion before enlisting in the US Army. A 23-year-old idealist who took soldiering seriously, Bergdahl was shocked to learn that the best officers "are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same."
It wasn’t just a military machine run from afar by incompetents that riled him, it was also the nature of the mission itself:
"In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. ‘I am sorry for everything here,’ Bowe told his parents. ‘These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.’ He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. ‘We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in 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.’"
The context of the email makes clear Bowe was going AWOL – although how he imagined he would be getting out of Afghanistan is murky, at best. Perhaps he had been driven mad by the sight of so much futile slaughter, such needless cruelty. Or perhaps he had been pushed over the edge into sanity, as indicated in his last remarks to his parents: "I am sorry for everything," he wrote, "The horror that is America is disgusting."
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held for almost five years: intermittent negotiations to secure his release were blocked by hardliners on both sides – the hardliner Taliban leaders who opposed all negotiations to end the conflict, and the Pentagon, which insisted that a prisoner swap would mean US soldiers would become targets (as if they weren’t already). Then there were the congressional Republicans, led by John McCain, who caviled "You’re negotiating with terrorists!" One imagines the Taliban’s hard-liners using similar language, albeit in Pashtun.
Yet the special task force convened to secure Bergdahl’s release never gave up, and this weekend they succeeded: the former prisoner-of-war is now in US hands. But what will become of him – and how will he be greeted when he comes home?
There are indications that Republicans are determined to make the prisoner swap deal an issue. Already we have Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in the Daily Beast complaining that the Gitmo detainees freed are so dangerous that we should all be quaking in our boots. And the Christian Science Monitor is already pointing to the Hastings piece, prefiguring the inevitable debate that promises to be remarkably similar, in broad terms rather than in the details, to the Edward Snowden episode.
Both young men were idealists who initially took the US government at its word: they believed Washington embodied the spirit of liberty and that our military and intelligence agencies were involved in a crusade for freedom designed to benefit and uplift the long-suffering peoples of the world. Upon discovering that this isn’t so – and is, indeed, the exact opposite of the truth – both Bergdahl and Snowden rebelled, each in their own way and to the extent of their abilities. The debate around their motivations, their moral status, and the circumstances leading to their disillusionment, is what separates the Regimists from the defenders of our old republic – and the pre-9/11 political culture – as we enter an election year. Although I’d like nothing better than to be proved wrong, I fear "Benghazi!" may soon give way to "Bergdahl!" as the congressional GOP’s war cry.
No sooner had Bergdahl been captured, then Ralph Peters – a Fox News "military analyst" who seems more like an invention of Stephen Colbert’s than an actual human being – called on the Taliban to execute him so as to "save us a lot of legal hassles." Peters may be a lunatic, but there are plenty of those around the vicinity of Washington, D.C. I’ll bet that well before this column is posted we’ll hear calls for Bergdahl’s prosecution – coming from the same gang that can’t wait to jail Snowden.
From being a prisoner of the Taliban to being a prisoner of the War Party – will Sgt. Bergdahl be doubly victimized? In such a case, the War Party’s vindictiveness could well backfire on them. Imagine the trial: it won’t be Bergdahl who will be exposed as criminally incompetent and guilty of war crimes. The war itself, and what it’s done to the best of our youth, will be put on trial in that courtroom.
It’s hard to believe any decent human being would even consider putting Bergdahl through more trauma than he’s already endured – but in the case of the War Party, exemplified by the foam-flecked Peters, we aren’t talking about decent people. They will exact their pound of flesh from an ordinary, powerless individual caught in the headwinds of our turbulent era, just to make an ideological point: that the war was and is justified, that we’re pulling out too soon, and – more importantly – that no individual "insider," whether a private in the Army or a top level technologist for the NSA, has the moral right to obey their conscience when it conflicts with their orders. The government decides, as Michael Kinsley argued in Snowden’s case, and not the individual – who is merely a cog in a gigantic "democratic" machine. After all, as the neocons and their "progressive" allies say of Snowden, who is he to make these decisions unilaterally?
"Who is he to judge?"
To which the only appropriate response is one of my favorite Ayn Rand aphorisms:
"Judge and prepare to be judged!"
While the War Party bays for Bergdahl’s blood, showing themselves to be less merciful than the Taliban, most ordinary Americans are going to look at him and think to themselves: What would I do in a situation like that? What would I do if I was smack dab in the middle of an unwinnable war, a nightmare in which I was fighting not only the official enemy but also my own officers and the deluded policymakers in Washington? With the huge number of wounded vets coming home irreparably damaged psychologically as well as physically, it isn’t hard to imagine someone would be crazy enough to just take off, alone, in the middle of Afghanistan. The average American will doubtless think to himself or herself: Hasn’t he been through enough? Leave him the heck alone!
In the context of the recent scandal in the Veterans’ Administration, are we really going to welcome home the last prisoner of the Afghan war with calls for his prosecution? How symbolic of our treatment of veterans in general would that be?! For all their "support the troops" rhetoric, this would never occur to the Ralph Peters types, and the rest of the characters on Fox News. Such unthinking callousness underscores just how much of a tin ear these folks have – and why the GOP, which generally shares their hearing disability, is a rapidly shrinking party.
The Obama administration isn’t hopelessly stupid: I find it hard to believe they’ll initiate legal proceedings against Bergdahl. As we wind down the war – while leaving some 10,000 "advisors" for "training" purposes – the last thing this administration wants is any kind of reckoning. To charge Bergdahl with going AWOL would keep the war in the headlines – and wind up indicting a policy, including their failed "surge" and the whole COIN disaster, which Obama and his supporters defend to this day.
Even as the Americans prepare to retreat – defeated just like the Russians and the British before them – the War Party is already writing a revisionist history of our longest war. Although a majority of Americans think the Afghan and Iraq wars weren’t worth it, our political elites devoutly believe quite the opposite – and are willing to use any opportunity in order to drive this point home to the public.
Sgt. Bergdahl is a martyr at least two times over: first, he’s a martyr to the deceptions which are the working tools of military recruiters: Gung ho on the soldiering profession, he took at face value the "Be All You Can Be" propaganda. Secondly, he was martyred on the altar of a foreign policy that is ostensibly about exporting "freedom" and is in reality a longstanding and ongoing crime against liberty.
If Bergdahl has to endure a third martyrdom, then perhaps it wasn’t so extreme after all for him to write: "The horror that is America is disgusting." Perhaps in that moment before he set out into the Afghan wasteland, alone, he foresaw his own fate – and our own, insofar as we let this happen.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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- Forget the Russian ‘Threat’: Mexico Is Our Real Problem – June 15th, 2017
- The Saudi War Against Qatar – June 13th, 2017
- A Thank You Note – June 6th, 2017