Last week a Congressional hearing entitled "The Bergdahl Exchange: Implications for U.S. National Security and the Fight Against Terrorism" was convened to investigate circumstances surrounding the prisoner exchange of former Army Private Bowe Bergdahl and events leading to his internment in Afghanistan over five years ago.
Amid conflicting accusations of seizure, defection and possible mental instability already tense exchanges were made more so by testimony from the father of a soldier killed in searches subsequent to the disappearance. As a forum for airing grievances such inquiries may be cathartic; more dubious is whether they can uncover any truth from battlefields in a faraway desert many Americans until recently had largely forgotten existed.
For whom are citizens to trust in the matter? A military whose accounts of lives lost in the wasteland have frequently been less than candid, as with Pat Tillman? An executive bureaucracy which has shown itself more pragmatic than patriotic in rescue of imperiled servicemen, as abandoned defenders in Benghazi bear witness? Legislators from either side of the aisle whose competing versions serve only their own ends, making either the best or the worst of Bergdahl as hapless captive or outright traitor?
Surely one cannot trust the Taliban, who avows he was taken while on patrol. Just as certainly one cannot unquestionably credit Bergdahl himself, who if a deserter would be unlikely to admit the fact and if mentally unstable would be unable to coherently assert it.
Virtually the only thing a layman can be assured of is the entire incident is a terrible tragedy in a horrible conflagration being seized upon by everyone with any kind of agenda as an emotional fulcrum. It is the worst imaginable venue in which to search for objective truth and in this the Bergdahl passage closing the Afghan saga is reminiscent of his compatriot who was a featured character in its beginning pages.
For those who do not recall (or after nearly thirteen years may have not been old enough to become familiar) John Walker Lindh was a young man captured in Afghanistan days after the United States formally declared war against the Taliban.
Lindh had intermittently traveled the Middle East and eventually enlisted at age 20 with Afghanis to battle the Northern Alliance, a faction fighting for control of the country in midst of a national civil war. In letters to his parents he indicated he was motivated, as many misguided youths before him, by stories of atrocities committed against civilians. He believed he was fighting on the side of "the good."
Through a feat of almost preternatural bad timing John took up arms in May 2001, only four months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks; of which there is no proof he had any foreknowledge. That incident led to swift reprisals, subsequent invasion, and Lindh’s detention by American forces on November 25, 2001.
One of the first things expressed to interrogators was he never intended to combat his own nation but due the ferocity of warriors in his adopted cause feared departing the front lines in wake of 9/11 would result in an immediate death sentence for him. Consequently he was forced to remain and no evidence has ever been produced which shows following 9/11 Lindh was engaged in plotting or raising a weapon against fellow countrymen. In fact he and a unit of the Taliban’s foreign fighters surrendered to them.
While all of the above might have warranted cooler heads to prevail on Lindh’s behalf, during the time he and several hundred other foreign combatants were being questioned at the Qala-i-Jangi military garrison there was a prisoner uprising. In its aftermath the vast majority of the detainees were dead but so too highly respected CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Spann. Though he was not responsible for that casualty, any possibility of clemency vanished.
The situation was made worse when other inmates later claimed Lindh was aware of the planned revolt yet failed to warn his captors. While provocative such allegations may either simply not be true, suspects (as in numerous other instances) conceivably made denunciations which they supposed would mitigate their own statuses, or as previously, in general holding John might still have felt his life imperiled. Admittedly, the reports may also have been accurate.
Whatever the reality, the garrison was soon retaken and Lindh probed by journalists who recognized him as a Westerner. He acknowledged belonging to al-Ansar, a cohort of Arabic-speaking participants financed by Osama bin Laden himself. However, John was high on morphine at the time given him for a gunshot wound he received in his leg more than a week prior. As with most aspects of his case, there are myriad interpretations of this episode and its factual reliability.
Transferred to Camp Rhino, Lindh was then strapped to a stretcher, blindfolded and stripped nude. He was relegated in this condition to a metal shipping container, apparently then standard procedure for those assessed as dangerous. In another excess typical of wartime some American military personnel took photos of him for sport. However, he was treated for his wounds.
In the ensuing weeks Lindh was confronted numerous times by assorted government intelligence, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While held by Marines during December 2001, he signed documents of confession of actions against the United States.
What occurred to induce this admission? We are at leave to wonder. Lindh’s attorney has stated his client repeatedly demanded legal representation before being interviewed; though under the exigencies of a warzone in the early days of a conflict even the staunchest advocate for civil liberties would find this an impractical request. More chilling is that Lindh’s representative has alleged "highly coercive” prison conditions compelled him to relinquish his rights. Furthermore, FBI agents failed to adhere to Justice Department recommendations concerning Lindh’s ability to remain silent.
Relocated stateside, on February 5, 2002, he was indicted on ten charges in Federal Court which might have led to three life sentences plus an additional 90 years imprisonment. Lindh pleaded not guilty to all. With the battlefield confession in jeopardy, a plea offer was made for supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony. Realizing the climate of hysteria, he and his lawyers conceded.
The sentence would be 20 years without eligibility for parole and requirement any assertions of mistreatment by authorities be dropped. Similarly Lindh was legally gagged from speaking in any way about abuse for the duration of his incarceration, two full decades.
With a 15% reduction for good behavior John Walker Lindh has a projected release date of May 23, 2019.
What do these dual men, barely more than boys, tell us about Generation War? America for good or ill still creates idealists. Both Bergdahl and Lindh fervently believed they were struggling against injustice and for the dignity of man. That they did so with opposing causes demonstrates the absurdity. Each had overly romantic notions about warfare and the world; Bergdahl fantasizing over adventures in the French Foreign Legion, Lindh wandering dangerous religious sites. A common strain of naiveté was certainly shared, a faith that if only the right people were subdued then "moral right" would prevail.
Now Bergdahl has returned home to something less than a hero’s welcome, as Lindh sits behind bars. Each is an avatar for hyper-militarism – the wounded warrior and the insidious "evildoer." Neither fits the part in the story assigned to him, as do no human beings if we bother to look at them. They are both only people; and if anything beyond, cautionary tales against imprudence in seeking out life’s meaning with half-closed eyes and wide-open imaginations.
Perhaps the best to be said of these corresponding chapters is that it is time to close the book. Bergdahl has endured more than we will ever know. Whatever his crimes, be they crimes, they have been paid for by his captivity. Lindh has likewise served a sentence longer than most rapists, pedophiles or murderers without any evidence he committed comparable offenses. He has been in some form of confinement for nearly thirteen years, with dark intimations of other abuses inflicted upon him as well. It is just he be released.
Changing the overall narrative for America means permitting these men to be free of diminishment into political caricatures and simply allowing them to fade into anonymity– in other words, left alone to try and find peace.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America. He is a lawyer by profession.