The Critical Mass

Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

The problem with guys like Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – and Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Pat Tillman – is they shed light on our dark sides.

Snowden and Manning used their top-security jobs to expose classified information that confirmed the U.S. government is undermining some of its citizens’ most-treasured principles: That we have no right to privacy. Now we are all guilty of something until proven innocent.

For shedding light on this issue of domestic spying, some Americans regard Snowden and Manning as heroes. More consider them to be traitors.

Tillman is an equally confusing story for Americans to digest. A highly-regarded defensive back in the National Football League, he turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Tillman was deployed to Iraq, and then Afghanistan, were he was killed in 2004. The selfless Tillman was hailed as a hero, and he remains one to this day. But the story of his death evolved in the days and months that followed. There was a cover-up. Members of his unit were instructed to lie. Evidence was destroyed, including a notebook in which he was recording his thoughts about the war. The truth soon emerged: Tillman was not killed as a result of enemy action, but friendly fire. And we now know that this member of the elite Rangers, an Academic All-American in college, had turned on the war as well. Tillman no longer believed America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justifiable.

Bergdahl presents an equally complicated story. And since he was traded earlier this week for five Taliban leaders being held in Guantanamo, his return after five years in captivity is being re-written by politicians and pundits with disappointingly simplistic world views.

Here’s one: Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, the multi-national group once headed by Osama bin Laden, is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban had nothing to do with it. And while the Taliban has notoriously violent ways, the Afghan Taliban is not even officially delegated as a terrorist organization. As far as the world and the United States legally defines it, the Afghan Taliban is an enemy combatant. We invaded their country, and we should not be surprised that they are shooting at us and setting roadside bombs in our paths. Like Bergdahl, the five Taliban who were traded for Bergdahl were prisoners of that war.

Here’s another simplistic view: That we have now allowed five enemy combatants to return to the battlefield. “The worst of the worst,” critics say, as the five thuggish mug shots fill the flat-screen TVs in America’s living rooms. And they may indeed return to the battle. But is the Taliban really getting back five top commanders (all of whom will be quarantined in Qatar for a year, as part of the deal)? Reporting that runs deeper than the hysterics of Senator John McCain and TV pundits suggests that the bloodthirsty reputation of these five Taliban leaders may have been grossly exaggerated, perhaps as justification for keeping them imprisoned for more than a decade. In fact one of these fearsome fighters – and all were captured in the early days of the war – was truly something many people do fear: Before the invasion of Afghanistan, he was a used-car salesman.

Hyperventilating over the release of The Taliban Five ignores the fact that America has created a cottage industry of manufacturing hate among the people of that region. We’ve invaded sovereign nations as though we own them, bombed villages, killed children with drones, tortured and humiliated innocent people in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and helped keep violent tribal leaders in power by paying them off with cash and Viagra, gaining the faint promise that they might help us keep the region marginally under our control. Our actions have recruited thousands of American-hating combatants for the battlefield. And we’re worried about those five guys just released from Guantanamo?

Someone’s worried about something. Before the facts were in, Bergdahl was under attack. Attacks planned by Republican strategists, always seeking a political crowbar to use on Barack Obama. The soldier’s family is even being scrutinized. If Bergdahl’s father, wearing a beard he hasn’t shaved since his son went missing, “absolutely looked like a Muslim,” as claimed by Fox News facial-hair expert Bill O’Reilly, then so do the guys from Duck Dynasty.

We don’t know why Bergdahl walked away from his post. Perhaps he was naive. Perhaps his mind caved in to the pressures of battle; we know that we’ve already brought back thousands of soldiers who will never be the same after this war. It’s even been claimed that Bergdahl’s desertion cost the lives of some of his fellow soldiers who were searching for him, although doubt has been cast on that notion by a story this week in The New York Times – supported, ironically, by some material stolen by Chelsea Manning. You can read it here.

One thing we do know, thanks to a story in Rolling Stone magazine, is that Bergdahl – like Pat Tillman – had grown to despise the American mission in Afghanistan. He says as much in emails sent to his parents:

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.

He sees himself in the company of  “an army of liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies,” and writes that he’s ashamed to be an American. Some heavy stuff seems to have been weighing on Bergdahl when he walked away from his post, his objective either uncertain or unreachable, perhaps even suicidal.

Allowing a soldier to die at the hands of his captors is not the punishment for his having questioning the validity of a mission and deserting his post. There is a human calculation being made here, that Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders was not an even trade. This debate should not be carried out under the same rules that we use for evaluating a couple of baseball teams swapping infielders. Obama reminded us Thursday of what the priority should be:

I write too many letters to folks who unfortunately don’t see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents, and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child, and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try and get them back.

We sent Bergdahl into harm’s way, on a dubious mission built on lies. Damaged or not, it was our duty to bring him back.