Embittered by double defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, driven out of both countries with their tails between their legs, the War Party is looking for scapegoats, and has found one in the least likely place – the ranks of the US Army. That’s right: the "support the troops" contingent is now intent on re-torturing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a 26-year-old Idaho native held captive by the Taliban for five horrific years.
A concerted campaign, stage-managed by "Republican strategists" – i.e. Richard Grenell, former Romney foreign policy consultant fired for being too gay – is pitting some of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s former comrades against the just-released prisoner-of-war. The former claim Bergdahl is a "traitor" who deserted his post: a 2012 Rolling Stone piece by Michael Hastings implies as much. Yet we really don’t know what happened: in a Taliban propaganda video Bergdahl says he was caught after he "lagged behind" on patrol. And this US government cable posted by WikiLeaks contains intercepted Taliban communications hailing his capture and claiming it occurred in the course of an attack on Bergdahl’s base while he was using a latrine.
We don’t yet know the circumstances of his capture, and so these calls for prosecution are premature, to say the least. Not that legal niceties like evidence matter to the baying wolves of the neocon media: they want vengeance for the war they lost and were widely blamed for. Having lost on the battlefield in Afghanistan, the War Party is seeking a victory on the home front.
The persecution of Bowe Bergdahl is just the first chapter in the neocons’ ongoing revisionist history of the Afghan war. And we know the theme of this work of fiction from the very first act: it’s a tired replay of the old "we-were-stabbed-in-the-back" myth promulgated by failed Napoleons in every country. In the American version, they said – and still say – the same thing about the Vietnam war – we were prevented from winning by squeamish liberals and anti-American war protesters, who secretly (and not so secretly) supported the Commie cause.
In Bergdahl’s case, his alleged desertion becomes a metaphor for all opposition to the war, with his angry emails to his father appearing to be his real "crime." Yet amid all the speculation and unseemly clamor, one weird anomaly stands out: soldiers don’t usually go AWOL while they’re in Afghanistan. They wait until they get back to the US on leave: Bergdahl’s case is, to my knowledge, a first. Did he really think he was going to walk to India, as he half-jokingly remarked to his former comrades? None of this makes much sense.
Which leads to the main question: if he did desert, what triggered him? A gung ho idealistic pro-military guy from Idaho doesn’t volunteer for the military, go to Afghanistan, and suddenly wake up one morning determined to walk away. In 2012 the New York Times reported:
"At first his e-mails home were effusive. ‘He was happy as a clam," Mr.[Robert] Bergdahl [Bowe’s father] said. He wrote of ‘how beautiful it was, how wonderful the people were.’ But the tone of his son’s e-mails soon darkened, Mr. Bergdahl said, although he declined to say specifically what set off the change."
In the Hastings account of Bergdahl’s emails, however, a bit more of the story comes out:
"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.’”
This seems fairly straightforward: Bergdahl clearly witnessed war crimes which had not only gone unpunished but were openly acknowledged and treated as jokes. He is, perhaps, capable of pointing an accusing finger at some of those who are being dredged up to label him a traitor. Whether their campaign of calumny is a preemptive strike, it’s too early to say: we have yet to hear from Bowe Bergdahl, who, it seems, is having difficulty remembering how to speak English.
The more I learn about this case, the less conclusive are the established facts: did he just walk off, alone, or is the latrine story true? Bits of evidence point in opposite directions.
What we do know is that Bergdahl was radically disenchanted with the US military and the war itself: we also know he witnessed at least one specific incident in which a young Afghan girl was run over – deliberately? – by US military personnel. What other atrocities did Bergdahl witness – and was, perhaps, forced to take part in? If these are the facts, then his seemingly crazy decision to set off into the Afghan countryside begins to make at least a modicum of (moral) sense.
In this context, it’s hard to imagine the administration prosecuting him for desertion: does the US State Department really want Bergdahl to testify how US soldiers in an armored truck laughed as they ran down an Afghan girl? As for the Fox News crowd, this could backfire on the War Party, big-time – remember that old adage about fools rushing in? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, now would it?
They’ll rush in anyway, because this is the kind of thing they enjoy. The Fox News bleach blondes and radio screamers are practically frothing at the mouth: they point suspiciously at the prominence of Robert Bergdahl’s beard, sure signs he’s a "Muslim convert" and Taliban sympathizer! That’s the level of demagoguery we’re seeing around this issue – and, I warn you, it’s going to get worse.
As usual, the tone-deaf Republicans – eagerly seizing on this as their signature foreign policy Benghazi-substitute issue – are their own worst enemies. While the burning question of "who lost Afghanistan?" may be a hot topic of conversation on their busy little blogs, out in the real world the country is sick unto death of hearing about Afghanistan.
The very last thing the American people want to see is some poor kid who got snookered into fighting that worthless war get pilloried for the sins of US policymakers. Yet what we are about to witness, I’m afraid, is the disgusting spectacle of an Idaho farm boy crucified by a gaggle of partisan Pharisees.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
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.