The saga of Bowe Bergdahl—the soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan before he was captured, held, and tortured by members of the Haqqani network for five years until his rescue in 2014—may be coming to a swift, if not anticlimactic end.
His detractors—who range from Donald Trump to Rush Limbaugh and countless members of the military community in between—won’t, as they say, have Bowe Bergdahl to kick around anymore. In fact, without Bergdahl, Trump wouldn’t have had one of his most indelible schticks of 2016: pretending to shoot Bergdahl in a firing squad. “He’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should’ve been executed,” Trump would say while he performed the grisly pantomime.
While we may never know what was in Bergdahl’s heart, the judge in his court martial reportedly accepted his guilty plea on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy on Monday. According to reports from the hearing, there was no pre-trial plea deal between his defense team and Army prosecutors. This “naked plea,” according to legal experts, is essentially Bergdahl throwing himself at the mercy of the judge, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, who will ultimately decide Bergdahl’s sentencing after a hearing that is supposed to begin Oct. 23.
Sgt. Bergdahl, who is still in the Army working a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, could get life in prison if the plea backfires, Eric Carpenter, former Army defense attorney and prosecutor, told Task & Purpose on Sunday. “If he doesn’t have a deal, they could go in there and enter this naked plea and come out with a life sentence.”
Bergdahl attorney Eugene Fidell declined comment for this story.
Certainly, life in prison would be seen by many as a fitting punishment for the now-31-year-old Idahoan who said he walked off his post on June 30, 2009 to bring attention to what he perceived to be poor conditions and leadership issues in his unit. That didn’t happen, and he was captured by the Taliban almost immediately instead. A massive search went on after him, with missions diverted and six servicemembers allegedly killed in the process (the government has never confirmed that anyone died looking for Bergdahl, despite persistent accusations to the contrary).
When Bergdahl was finally freed (his harrowing time with the terror group included, according to Bergdahl, being beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, and locked in a 6×6 cage in complete darkness for months at a time), it was in a Taliban swap for five of their detainees at Guantanamo Bay. While initially hailed at the White House as a good thing, an avalanche of criticism came from Capitol Hill (the deal hadn’t been cleared with members of Congress first, they complained), and from media such as Fox News and right-wing radio jocks who suddenly had access (with the help of Republican operatives) to members of the Bergdahl search party and unit, all of whom were calling him a deserter and traitor.
The fact is, Bergdahl was tried and convicted–even sentenced to death—before he even entered a courtroom. While many will argue it is because he “walked off,” violating the code and forcing the U.S. military to marshal precious resources across dangerous terrain, diverting energy from critical counter-terrorism operations in southeastern Afghanistan, the political hue to the Bergdahl hate is difficult to ignore.
And we can pinpoint where it likely began: a Michael Hastings profile of Bergdahl and his family in Rolling Stone in 2012, one year before the award-winning writer of The Operatives (an excerpt of which got Gen. Stanley McCrystal fired from his command in Afghanistan) was killed in a car wreck. Hastings’ story was the first to suggest in detail that Bergdahl was disenchanted with the war in language that many critics of the Afghanistan-Iraq counterinsurgency policy would recognize. In increasingly dark emails written to his family and shared with Hastings, Bergdahl spoke openly about being deceived by his country and how he was “ashamed to be an American.”
In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” 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.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”
Bergdahl has not walked back these privately conveyed feelings, but in the intervening years it has become clear that he should have never been sent overseas with the Army to begin with. He washed out of Coast Guard training after a dramatic panic attack, which for some reason did not impede his mental health screening for the Army a few years later. It was evident he did not fit in with his unit socially, and his incongruent expectations and illusions of heroism that led to his walking off post were later diagnosed by an Army psychiatrist, who, while not trying to excuse the desertion charges, said Bergdahl was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.
But by the time Bergdahl’s mental state, his insistence that he did not plan to desert permanently, and the revelations about the horrors he sustained as a Taliban captive, came to light, it did not matter. His failure to stay in line, his criticism of the war policy and of the military (even though they were private letters to his family) blunted any sympathy he might have earned, and by that time the politicized narrative had already had taken shape. People were forced to take sides and to many, he was the enemy. For always.
That the Obama administration had freed him and initially called Bergdahl a hero was certainly another bang of the gavel against him. As Limbaugh said Monday morning: “The Obama Administration was singing the praises—of a military deserter.” And Trump, who was calling him a traitor, turned out “to have been right from the start.”
Aside from being a tragedy—for himself, his family, and the military community that feels directly injured by his actions—Bergdahl is a symptom of the hyper-politicized culture that’s been sustaining and explaining away the failures of U.S war policy since 2002. He will likely be forgotten, but not before the war promoters and guardians of the status quo fix on some other scapegoat to divert public attention and emotion away from where it should be directed, at the U.S. government.
As defense writer David Axe said in 2014 after Bergdahl was released and the tidal wave of criticism was cresting: “We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp. Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man. … [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.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.