By Senior Campaign Agent Luke Walpole
As sunlight dappled across the Rose Garden of the White House, there was cause for optimism. The day was May 31, 2014, and President Obama opened the floor to two regular Idahoans. The father, sporting a long, unruly beard, and the mother, standing stoically. Their names were Bob Bergdahl and Jani Larson Bergdahl, and they were called to Washington to help announce a momentous decision: their son was coming home.
The return of Private Bowe Bergdahl to the United States after five years in captivity was not, however, met with universal support. This was not the return of America’s prodigal son. Within moments, Right-Wing shock-jocks and the team at FOX News began questioning the terms of his release. Swapped in return for five inmates at Guantanamo Bay, criticism of the President’s deal-brokering peppered the news cycle.
More unsavoury reactions began to emerge, condemning Bergdahl as a traitor, a terrorist sympathise, a sleeper agent. Whether the cultural footprint and prominence of Homeland on TV coloured these reactions is a question for another time, yet the question remained – how could America’s only POW from the War in Afghanistan elicit such vitriol?
To answer that question, Bergdahl’s past must be contextualised. Having lived an eclectic upbringing, Bowe joined the US Coastguard aged 20. Eager to serve and physically fit, his service was cut short. After only 26 days, Bowe suffered some form of psychotic episode. The Washington Post has since uncovered his journal, and went on to synthesise that there was a “complicated and fragile young man” stumbling out from the pages.
Officials within the Coastguard afforded Bowe an ‘Uncharacterized Discharge’, given to those who leave within 180 days of basic training. In reality, that tells us little. In fact, it was arguably this ambiguity which provided Bowe with the loophole through which he could slip into the US Army in 2008. Despite President Obama’s pre-election promise to end the conflict in Afghanistan, the number of troops in the country was on the rise.
Similarly to his brief time with the Coastguard, Bowe rubbed against the authorities within the Army. He questioned his orders on a regular basis, and then, on June 25, his battalion suffered their first casualty. The death of First Lieutenant Bryan Bradshaw darkened Bowe’s already solemn mood. Two days later he emailed his parents back in Idaho, and was in an implacable temper. “The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an American” he stated, in a passage littered with anger and indignation. It was under this foreboding shadow that Bowe decided to leave his base on 30 June, 2009.
The rationale behind this move has been extensively debated. Some state that Bowe’s move was evidence of cowardice and desertion. Yet Bowe himself contends his plan was to reach a nearby base, to complain about his own commanding officers. The plan, if true, was risky, and it was not long before Bergdahl was apprehended by members of the Haqqani network; a nexus of Pakistani and Afghan operatives working in the volatile border of the two countries.
What followed were five years of hell. Bergdahl twice tried to escape, and was twice seized. Though beaten and bruised voraciously after the first attempt, his captors reneged on the second occasion. This was not done for altruistic purposes. Having escaped for eight days, Bowe was collected in a malnourished and broken state. To beat him with the same intensity as before could’ve killed him, and the simple equation was that he was infinitely more valuable alive than dead. For his indiscretions, however, Bergdahl was housed in a cage for the remainder of his captivity.
Thousands of miles away, the wolves were circling. A fiery debate on FOX News saw former contemporaries of Bowe appear to question his loyalty openly and sharply. The longer the time went on, the more it seemed that the situation was wracked with paralysis. The decisive actions of President Obama did little to assuage the ambiguities which hung ominously above proceedings.
Freedom came, and freedom went. Though exchanged in May 2014, Bowe was then housed in a Military Base in Texas. Meanwhile, an investigation was afoot in which Major General Kenneth Dahl was tasked with scrutinising every facet of Bowe’s service, fleeing, and captivity. It wasn’t until September of 2015 that he concluded Bergdahl shouldn’t face legal action, nor was he convinced that the soldier was sympathetic to the Taliban’s cause.
The case, however, was not closed. As he toured from stump to stump, then-potential nominee for the GOP Donald Trump whipped up anti-Bergdahl sentiment. Touting the deaths of six military personnel as a direct consequence of missions designed to find the lost soldier, Trump tapped into a widespread skepticism, and in some cases outright hatred, for Bowe. This, even though military courts had ruled that the deaths Trump mentioned occurred in unrelated missions. Yet the chronology stuck, and Bowe continued to be vilified.
This has continued unabated. In early November, a fresh investigation ruled that Bergdahl will be dishonorably discharged from the armed services, but pivotally, will not face jail time. As someone who has become deeply interested in this case, I decided to dip my toe into the murky waters of Twitter, and opine. Within moments, a vehement anti-Bergdahl user shot back. This exchange continued, and though familiar arguments were used, and familiar ground covered, the final response spoke volumes. As I questioned whether the user would’ve liked to have seen a five-year jail sentence (the minimum for desertion), or even the Death Penalty, the answer was jaded: “Even a year, something, anything.”
Though Bowe has suffered, there is a palpable belief that justice has not been dealt by many. This is what makes his case a micro window into a macro debate. It brings to the fore major questions about patriotism and what it means to serve in the modern United States. Does allegiance to the flag entail an unshakable execution of orders, or questioning such orders because you believe them to be wrong? Are the actions of the American military beyond reproach by their own citizens? The liberal-minded will scoff, but the American heartlands which poured their support behind Trump may interpret it differently.
Bowe Bergdahl was a solider, but he’s become a concept. A political football kicked across the country by those who are champions of vying interpretations of America. Despite the sunshine, the sanguinity of the Rose Garden was brief.
N.B. The story of Bowe Bergdahl is complex and convoluted. Though this is a potted summary, there are nuances and caveats that could fill books. If you want to find out more, the best place to start is with Serial; a podcast created by the makers of This American Life. In a 10-part audio documentary series, the brilliant Sarah Koenig accessibly combs through the case with precision. The podcast is linked below, as are a selection of stories which cover the outlines the of saga.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Stephanie McCrummen, Bergdahl’s writings reveal a fragile young man, Washington Post Online (11 June 2014)
- Michael Hastings, America’s Last Prisoner of War, Rolling Stone Online (7 June 2017)
- Bowe Bergdahl Released, continued coverage, NBC
- Sergeant Bergdahl’s Platoon Speak Out, Fox News, Video (6 June 2014)
- Bowe Bergdahl’s Attorney: Trump created a “lynch mob” atmosphere, The Guardian, Video, (3 November 2017)
- Serial Series Two
- Coming Home: Bowe Bergdahl Against the United States, BBC4
Image: Global Panorama @Flickr