I meant to post this eons ago, before Bowe Bergdahl returned to duty and began facing the prospect of court-martial for desertion. But it’s actually time now, with the new-sorta war that has everyone I know on tenterhooks — including/especially those who, like Bergdahl, have spent time in the Sandbox wondering why,
Imagine how much more you’d be if after three months home, and six weeks after talking to Army investigators, you were in limbo at Fort Sam Houston with no idea when or if your life will transform again.His attorney, the sterling mensch Louis Fidell, told reporters this week that he feels like “the Maytag repairman…I’m just waiting for the phone to ring.” That hasn’t stopped the professional talkers, from Fox News to the House of Representatives, from using Bergdahl’s release last spring as a political boomerang thrown at President Obama.
Despite all the time and spilled pixels, it feels like we know less about Bergdahl than we did when he was still a Taliban prisoner and we had only Michael Hastings’ vivid 2012 Rolling Stone portrait. What we have instead is speculation, and the understandable anger from members of the unit he walked away from, never to return, and measured words from his parents and his attorneys.
In The Nation, Robert Musil fell back on stories of Vietnam-era deserters, to urge compassion for”an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.” Telegraph UK writer Tim Stanley wrote about Bergdahl, “The rebellious soldier is a paradox that is hard to process.” That word ‘paradox’ was also used by AP’s Martha Mendoza, which calls Bergdahl’s story ” a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.” Her narrative includes the soldier’s homesschooling with Calvinist parents, his progressive/hippie college girlfriend, his fantasies of heroism with the Foreign Legion before enlistment and his agonized letters home from Afghanistan.
The New Yorker’s John Cassidy turns to literature to unlock the puzzle: “If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.”
Another story that occurred to me, reading the Hastings profile, is Ursula Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In that oft-taught parable, the inhabitants of a Utopia are shown the suffering that makes their comfort possible. Most accept it, but a few leave their home, trudging without belongings toward a city hard to fathom. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Similarly, Hastings writes, “Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away,” a sentence written after describing the alternative: “Active duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.”
A Times editorial added that “Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner.” And not to make assumptions about their mental state either before or after such an ordeal.
That applies to us, too. To me, even though I’m currently contemplating including Bergdahl in my title. Because we still don’t know anything.
Telegraph UK’s Tim Stanley does what I’d be tempted to do: state that the case shows ” the damage to a nation’s psyche caused by a controversial war,” note all the auxiliary issues civilians wrestle with at times like this, and conclude: “Bowe Bergdahl should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Bush should never have sent him there; Obama should have brought him home sooner. War makes a Hell of men’s lives.” I agree, but it’s not enough.
Before I write a word about Bergdahl in this book, I need to do much more reporting. I really want to talk to Matthew Hoh, himself a soldier-dissenter, who knows the family and spoke clearly about Bergdahl’s journey for CNN:
I can only hope to talk to his attorney, one of the nation’s best-known specialists in military law, who I talked to very occasionally in the CCCO days. And just as with Chelsea Manning, I know there’s no way I can interview the man himself, and thus am skittish about writing any actual commentary of my own here.
I’ll instead give the last word to that attorney, Eugene Fidell — via Sig Christensen, who’s 10X the journalist I’ll ever be and who wrote last week’s story on the Army’s delay. “Fidell wouldn’t discuss Bergdahl’s activities here but said his client wants to focus on his education once out of the Army. “His time is up. His enlistment has long since expired. He wants to go to college [..] There are many bridges that have to be crossed before he has to make a decision on where he’s going to live.”