My Turn: Opinions on Bergdahl too often stated as fact
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Bergdahl family and released by the Idaho National Guard shows then Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Ketchum, Idaho. Afghanistan's Taliban says it has suspended "mediation" with the United States to exchange captive U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl's reception if he is released could vary from hero, a deserter, or just a young man from Idaho whose life took a U-turn in the mountains of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/The Bergdahl Family via Idaho Nayional Guard, File)
I have been shocked at the amount of hatred unleashed against Bowe Bergdahl and his parents. I was driving to work after the prisoner swap, listening to Boston sports talk radio, and one of the early-morning hosts stated Bergdahl was a worthless traitor as if that was an uncontroverted fact. There has been an avalanche of sentiment of that type.
You would not have thought Bergdahl was a POW for five years. Now we are finding out he was tortured after he tried to escape captivity. The New York Times reported that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time.
Critics of Bergdahl have called him a deserter, mentally ill, anti-American, a jihadist and a warrior for Islam. One Fox News commentator said the Taliban could have saved the United States money on legal bills if they had executed him. Bergdahl’s parents have also received death threats.
How commentators know so much about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s separation from his unit and his capture remains a mystery. Just like how other commentators know that the five released Taliban prisoners are “the worst of the worst.”
Speculation becomes rampant when political agendas try to shape perception. Before the prisoner swap, the best information we had about Bergdahl was the 2012 story written by Michael Hastings that appeared in Rolling Stone.
Hastings’s article described a person very different from any stereotype. Bergdahl grew up near Hailey, Idaho, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His parents home-schooled him. He was a free-spirited kid who loved dirt bikes and boys’ adventure stories. His parents are devout Calvinists very concerned about ethical issues.
As a teenager, Bergdahl developed a passion for fencing. He also took up ballet, where he met a girlfriend. He dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. He actually traveled to Paris and started to learn French, but his application to join the French Foreign Legion was rejected.
Bergdahl remained interested in a military career. He enlisted in the Army. He was a reader. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl surrounded himself with piles of books including Three Cups of Tea, about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hastings said that unlike others in his training unit, Bergdahl was more likely to hang out in Barnes and Noble than a strip club.
Hastings goes on to say that after getting to Afghanistan, Bergdahl became disgusted with the war and the general incompetence of his unit. He had sincerely wanted to help Afghans, but he did not see that going on. He gravitated away from his unit and he became more psychologically isolated. He had seen an Afghan child get run over by an armored vehicle.
Hastings speculated that the trauma of seeing an Afghan child run over had a big impact on Bergdahl. He quoted from an email Bergdahl had written: “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down on 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.”
I would offer an alternative speculation for why Bergdahl walked away. He was disgusted by the war. Hastings wrote that Bergdahl did not see the American war effort as an attempt to win Afghan hearts and minds. Possibly he was just a sensitive, idealistic guy who was horrified by a senseless war.
I think much of the criticism of Bergdahl reflects misguided militarism and jingoism. In the 21st century, we should be far down the road from gung-ho soldiers with John Wayne fantasies who never doubt and who blindly follow orders. The 20th century provides many horrible examples of the “I was just following orders” variety.
There has been a too-cavalier acceptance of all of the wars the United States has engaged in since Vietnam. There have been so many. Maybe we should be questioning that – not focusing so much attention on what Bergdahl did or did not do.
Bergdahl’s situation made me flash on Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun and Ron Kovic’s book Born on the Fourth of July. Bergdahl is a different variant, but it is so premature to be drawing the type of hateful criticism we have seen. How many of these armchair generals criticizing Bergdahl and his parents ever enlisted or put themselves in the type of dangerous situation Bergdahl did?
If the military eventually decides Bergdahl violated any military law, he should face military justice. Still, he also deserves due process of law and the presumption of innocence. That is the American way – not unsupported slander.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own view and not that of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)