Bowe Bergdahl walked off his post a 23-year-old man of little renown. He’s come back, but in the days since his controversial release from Taliban captivity, the media-generated hostility against him and the White House that negotiated his release has all but led to convictions of desertion (for Bergdahl) and impeachment (for Obama) in the court of public opinion.
Military and legal experts who spoke to TAC, some on background, others freely on the record, say this episode is about much more than one soldier out of the hundreds of thousands who served in Afghanistan walking off. It’s about more than the supposed “worst of the worst” who were Taliban exchanged for him, or President Obama not notifying Congress, or even the soldiers who claim their buddies died looking for Bergdahl.
Today, Bergdahl has become the perfect stand-in for a presidency half the country more or less despises. He is seen as a soldier who is not “really” a soldier because, according to murky e-mails sent to his father before his June 2009 disappearance, he was unhappy with the war. His vilification—some, like ubiquitous war pundit Ralph Peters, want Bergdahl stripped of everything (or maybe just executed)—is the very apex of the partisanship and ideological warfare that has marked the modern political era. It’s so toxic that national unity—even over the return of one missing American—seems forever unattainable.
“The country is divided roughly down the middle, and worse, the political overlap between the two parties is almost non-existent,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. And the Republicans, he said, “determined early on that their best strategy was to neuter this president.” This, he added, will join “endless doomed efforts” to do that, like the campaign against “Obamacare” and Benghazi (referring to the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, the truth of which a host of Republicans say has been covered up by the White House).
“In all honesty, it looks like to me, here is an element of the Republican Party that was hoping that Benghazi was going to be the club to bludgeon the president with and when that didn’t work out then this comes along,” said one Army officer who did not want to give his name. Another, a Navy JAG officer, told TAC he believed the Republican was actually elevating the five newly released Taliban, making them more important—and potentially more dangerous—than they ever were.
It may just be politics, critics point out to TAC, but the results are poisonous. “I make no particular brief on behalf of Bergdahl,” said author Mike Lofgren, who spent 30 years working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, “but maybe they should wait until the facts come out. The fact that the Bergdahl family is subject to death threats shows that the Republicans are basically exploiting a current of psychotic vindictiveness.”
Six members of Bergdahl’s former platoon engaged in an aggressive turn through the print and TV talk show circuit (their interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly boasted 14.5 million shares alone through Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze), not only calling Bergdhal a deserter, but claiming he was actively seeking out the Taliban and had caused the death of U.S. forces looking for him (there is no clear evidence to back either point). Afterwards, mothers of the dead soldiers began to come forward, too. One said she had heard nothing of her son’s connection to the Bergdahl case—until these platoon mates contacted her family within the last week.
“In their lust to get after (Bergdahl) and use people who say all the combat deaths are attributed to Bergdahl, some members of the media have opened up all these new wounds for families of soldiers who did die,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who considers himself a conservative but has been an arch critic of the war policy in Afghanistan. In a recent piece for The National Interest he wrote that Bergdahl “deserves the same presumption of innocence that any other American citizen accused of a crime receives.” “The evidence,” for Bergdahl causing these deaths, “is extremely iffy. So now there is new fresh pain for people who don’t deserve the pain, and for whom my heart bleeds.”
The New York Times noted that the interviews with those aforementioned soldiers in Bergdahl’s platoon were arranged “by a Republican strategist,” who turns out to be Richard Grenell, who worked for former Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton and as well as Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign, according to Buzzfeed. He’s now a founding partner at Capitol Media Partners. His colleague Brad Chase told Buzzfeed that the soldiers “reached out” to Grenell, who then shopped them around to the likes of The Weekly Standard, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal, all of which published interviews with the veterans, as well as varying degrees of condemnation directed at Bergdahl and the White House in the immediate wake of Obama’s much-maligned Rose Garden ceremony announcing Bergdahl’s release.
Not more than a week later, the FBI said it was investigating death threats against Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Janie, who have also come under fire by the runaway online mobosphere. “They are completely overwhelmed by this,” noted Davis, who has been in touch with Robert throughout his son’s captivity. “I marvel how he has been able to endure.”
Critics of the hardening narrative against Bergdahl say his own negative words about the war and his experience in the unit, as reported in a sympathetic profile in Rolling Stone by the late Michael Hastings two years ago, has unfairly branded him “anti-American,” and has given the warhawks fodder for which to backhandedly blame him for the failure of a war they had once so vehemently supported.
“We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp,” sarcastically penned David Axe, whose recent column cut through the bombast and defied the evolving trope that Bergdahl was a traitor who killed his fellow Americans by walking off. “Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man.” He added:
[The Taliban] beat us in a war of our choosing. Hate them for it, if you think it helps. But don’t blame their victory, and our losses, on Bergdahl. …
Two hundred and ninety-five coalition troops died in Afghanistan in 2008. Five hundred and twenty-one died in 2009. More than 700 perished in 2010. Bergdahl’s regiment was going to fight—and suffer casualties—regardless of whether planners tailored the unit’s operations to help gather intelligence on Bergdahl’s whereabouts.
(Ret.) Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who became an activist against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after she retired in 2003, told TAC that she believed Bergdahl was indeed targeted for his views. “The [neoconservative] right and warmongering left hates Bowe mainly because he passed judgment,” she said.
Charles Pierce, who runs the political blog at Esquire, took the point about the e-mails further.
the indecent charlatans of our political class are making quite a meal out of e-mails that Bowe Bergdahl sent home to his parents in which he sounded disillusioned with America’s mission in Afghanistan. Good god, is that where we’re at now? A soldier’s grousing is now a window into his “treason,” which is presently being manufactured for domestic political consumption by a rabid exaltation of chickenhawks…
“The vast majority of uninformed folks who get their news from soundbites and have the memory-span of two Facebook postings seem to have forgotten that MANY Americans (including some of those calling for [Bergdahl’s] head on a platter) were very disillusioned with these wars,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Lorraine Barlett, who served as a defense attorney with the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay. She cautions against a hasty conclusion until the military investigation into the desertion claims are complete. “Calling Bergdahl a traitor is merely punishing him (and upping the ante) for his views,” she told TAC in an email.
Republican surrogate Michael Gerson thought it clever to charge Bergdahl this week with “delusional naïveté” (and for violating “his oath”). The Rolling Stone article, informed by the emails, as well as interviews with Robert Bergdahl and others, described a 23-year-old who, when he signed up at the recruiting office, believed he would be on a humanitarian mission a la COIN (counterinsurgency, circa 2009). He talked about protecting the population against the Taliban. He envisioned living with the Afghans, learning their language—all of which were Gen. David Petraeus’s chief selling points to Washington in 2009, and eventually bought the military another 30,000 troops to “surge” into Afghanistan in early 2010.
That surge has largely been considered a failure, and the war itself a long, hard lesson in lowered expectations. That Bergdahl may have gone into the war expecting one thing and experienced another wasn’t delusional. What he found was profound disappointment, say critics, and it was perfectly normal. “If you check the private email of the guys over there I’m guessing you are going to see plenty of similar stuff,” noted Davis.
But the emails in the context of the Rolling Stone article and fresh hearsay coming from fellow soldiers have all but locked up the public case for Bowe the deserter. His father’s long beard—now reportedly shaved—and his willingness to reach out to Taliban in sympathetic tones through social media in an attempt, his friends say, to keep the lines of communication open, have drawn ugly rebuke from commentators on the right, too. Echoing much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric heard after 9/11, Robert Bergdahl has been called an “anti-American” and a “radical pacifist.” Laura Ingraham even remarked that with his beard, “he actually looks like one of the terrorists.”
The Obama administration certainly did not help its own cause. Nearly everyone TAC spoke to said Bergdahl had been prematurely judged, and a victim of politics, but that the White House could have notified Congress, or at the very least, skipped the Rose Garden ceremony. Optics are everything. Even reliably middle of the road columnist Dana Milbank said the White House was suffering from “group think” and had made bad decisions that poisoned the well. Everyone wants to “look at all the facts,” said Davis, just without the hyperbole.
Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, spent five hours Wednesday in hearings on Capitol Hill, largely defending the exchange. But toward the end, he admitted that “we didn’t handle some of this right,” including keeping Congress in the loop.
But as Fidell noted, this is “a battle for the narrative.” And the Republicans, by making Bergdahl a symbol of betrayal, and Obama a symbol of imperial power, so far seem to be winning—if the polls can be trusted. Veterans appear firmly on the side of letting Bergdahl hang out to dry, and the whole of America remains divided on the issue. Not surprisingly, only 39 percent said Obama should have traded the five Taliban, or “the worst of the worst,” for Bergdahl. In another poll, 56 percent of Americans (65 percent of vets) say Washington paid “too high a price” for Bergdahl.
Not surprisingly, that is, after seven straight days of political skullduggery and emotional button-pushing. “The politics of this entire episode are rather disheartening,” noted Stephen Vladeck, law professor at American University and writer at Lawfare.com. “I suspect we would have heard similarly excessive language from congressional Republicans if President Obama had not made this deal,” Vladeck shared with TAC in an email, “and had allowed an American POW to continue to languish, and potentially die, in enemy custody.”
Fortunately for Bowe Bergdahl’s sake, we’ll never know.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.