Part 2 of my dialogue with Serial about Bergdahl

newsworksIs here, at WHYY’s Newsworks in preparation for that panel on the 15th. Think of it as a companion, and perhaps a closer, to the discussion I began at this blog and then at Guernica.

By  the way, that panel is full of kick-ass experts. Expect me to be very quiet.But I think anyone who’s within driving or transit distance of Philly would benefit from it. At the very least you’ll meet Warrior Writers of every conceivable stripe.

if you’re anywhere near Philly on March 15th

All this meditating on Bergdahl has gotten me included on this panel on WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station. You should come for veteran correspondent Quil Lawrence and the other panelists:

  • Josh Fattal, Former Iran Hostage
  • Malcolm Nance, Veteran U.S. Intelligence Officer
  • Rachel Van Landingham, Military Law Expert and Professor of Law

Read up on all of them first. It’s going to be amazing.

Bergdahl, from @Serial to serial trouble

ARM-Bowe-Bergdahl-post-rescueI know, I know. I kind of left you on tenterhooks after that November skirmish between Bergdahl’s counsel and the Army. That was shortly after I published my Guernica broadside on the challenges of telling Bergdahl’s story while deciding whether Bergdahl’s name deserved inclusion in my book’s title. (That last decision was easiest, and will be explained below.}

I then spent the rest of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 finishing the newest draft of this book, in time for editors at The New Press to decide what should happen next. My limited energy needed to be expended on those hundreds of pages — even as events in the Bergdahl case accelerated.  The soldier himself was and is on desk duty at Fort Sam, as seen in the Army Times photo above.

Now, we’ve seen 5 episodes of Sarah Koenig’s podcast, including the compelling “Escaping” and the perplexing “5 O Clock Shadow,” all of them filling in much of what I never knew about Bergdahl.   After the podcast’s first episode, though, General Abrams overruled the recommendations of both General Dahl and the hearing officer, and ordered a full court-martial for Bergdahl, on both the desertion charges and the anachronistic “misbehavior before the enemy.”

Since then, most Bergdahl news has constituted legal battles between the Army and Eugene Fidell, mostly over how much of the evidence in the case should be available to him and to the public. My email inboxes sag with Fidell’s motions to the Army  Court of Federal Appeals, though he hasn’t always shared the court’s responses. No one reported that Fidell had finally, last week, won a minor victory when Col. Jeffrey Nance, appointed last month to oversee issues of classified data,  ordered the prosecution to turn over every piece of evidence to the defense, now.  The Army then turned to the Court, and that’s today’s news — that a writ has been granted freezing any such action, effectively delaying all proceedings for now. No wonder the court-martial itself was scheduled for August, giving time for such delays.

Bergdahl’s case is thus, as I’ve long predicted, entering that no-man’s land of the national security state, and like Manning’s will only be partially visible to the rest of us. But the delay also gives us time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and whether Sarah  Koenig’s mission is diverging even further from mine.

dustwun-screen-shot-2015-12-10-at-5-56-08-pmThe Army denies that the timing of the charges had anything to do with the episode of Serial that preceded them, DUSTWUN, but it can’t have thrilled prosecutors to hear  Bergdahl’s voice that way, or to learn of the wealth of information to come from 35 hours of conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (known for working w/Kathryn Bigelow on ZERO DARK THIRTY).

That first episode was named for the status assigned to any missing soldier, dustwun (short for “duty status-whereabouts unknown”), also shorthand for the kind of tumult that follows someone being declared so. He wanted to “cause a DUSTWUN,” Bergdahl told Boal, so that when he reappeared at a nearby FOB he’d be able to inform higher-ups of “serious issues” with his base’s command. He also told Boal that he was trying to be a hero, and saw himself as being someone “like Jason Bourne” of all those movies.

I’m not  the only person who was nonplused by Bergdahl’s declarations, which at least implied that what he had to say was worth the cost to his peers of throwing his base upside down.  Or by how, when  he got lost, his Bourne plans included getting Taliban intelliigence that still might prove him a hero.

At least one journo colleague of mine soured on Bergdahl entirely, calling him a “douche” — an assessment that didn’t shift much when the show moved on to heart-rending accounts of his capture and torture. Koenig also interviewed many of his platoon-mates as well as people associated with the Taliban, who had their own version of how they captured Bergdahl and turned him over to the Haqqani network (kind of the Sopranos of the Taliban). And adding a lot of value has been accounts from military prisoner-recovery personnel, including some who got Bergdahl’s family involved in fighting to make Bergdahl a priority. The harder they all worked, the more of a mysterious child the soldier himself seems.

And if you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you got a glimpse of Episode 5, billed as “Bowe explains why he did it.”  At first I was intrigued by the “good soldier” with a “philosopher-nerd component.” But then he decries FOB Sharana as too cushy: “I wanted adventure, I wanted action.”  And in the middle of making his case for why he didn’t trust his battalion commander, he calls his unit’s counterinsurgency mission “bullshit” and that rather than communicating with locals, they “should have been out there just killing these people who were trying to kill us.”

The episode also included important discussion of COIN and of different kinds of command discipline, as a way of exploring the behavior that caused Bergdahl to believe that his brigade commander “didn’t have our interests at heart.” Important to try to understand the situation for these units in Afghanistan in 2009: but less and less of a story of dissent,less so even than if it had been a case of simple desertion. Though I do tend to think that 5 years being tortured by the Taliban is adequate punishment for what he did, I’m seeing Bergdahl as less a dissenter than an anomaly.

Which brings me back to why Bergdahl only belongs in this project more for what he represented as for what the still-young man ever believed or did.  He certainly doesn’t belong in the title;  even if Bergdahl proved a stealth conscientious objector, using his name would date the book unnecessarily. Better to go with  the new and final subtitle, “From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.”

I’ll still keep listening, and following the case; I’m grateful to Bergdahl’s counsel for keeping me abreast.  It’s an interesting Rosetta Stone, anyway – as Veterans for Peace and others continue with their “Free Bowe Bergdahl” campaigns, just as the GOP presidential contenders compete in calling for his execution.  .

Newsflash: New York Times + Buzzfeed sue FORSCOM re Bergdahl, and don’t tell anyone

foi-900x500I’m going back and forth between a legal filing I received this weekend and my newswires, which show no signs that some of the major news organization have filed a request with General Abrams, commander of Fort Bragg — politely demanding the public release  of its investigation of Bowe Bergdahl.

I’ve written here before about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who burst into public consciousness last year after 5 years of being held prisoner by the Taliban. I titled that post “Bergdahl=Rashomon,” given the wildly contrasting, quite-firmly-held views of the case expressed by people who knew nothing about what happened that day in Afghanistan that Bergdahl disappeared, Most recently he’s been a public whipping boy for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has planted his flag in the Bergdahl’s a traitor camp even before the Army has decided on a court-martial.

As the public debate over this very complex case rages, Bergdahl’s civilian defense has begun to demand that all investigations be released, even taking the unusual step of releasing the transcript of last-week’s preliminary hearing into the matter. So you’d think it would be news that General Abrams, of the U.S. Army Forces Command, has just been served with a legal “request to intervene” filed by:

HEARST NEWSPAPERS LLC; THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; BLOOMBERG L.P.; BUZZFEED, INC.; DOW  JONES & CO., INC; FIRST LOOK MEDIA; GANNETT CORPS; MCCLATCHY CO; THE NEW YORK TIMES CO; REUTERS AMERICA; AND WP COMPANY LLC, D/B/A THE WASHINGTON POST

With such a list of heavyweight press outlets asking, you might think one of them would mention it. I do expect that to happen eventually, once their national-security legal divisions  have vetted it.

I also expect that later today, Guernica Magazine will be running my own piece on Bergdahl; I’ll add the link later, and also write more about the news that is not yet news.

Update: Here it is, with a title out of CJR. Let me know what you think, and welcome if you came from this blog from there.

#Bergdahl = Rashomon

It’s now more than two weeks since the Army brought charges against Robert D. Bowdrie Bergdahl, known to most of us as Bowe.. In that time, journalists and commentators have rushed to characterize a young man most of us knew only from last years’ headlines, and photos of a skinny Army private in Arab robes squinting at the sun.

The charges against Bergdahl, who was released in June 2014 after 5 years as a Taliban prisoner, are stark: desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” for leaving his Afghan post. But the charge sheet differs substantially from Bergdahl’s own account of what happened that week, which was released by his defense attorney Eugene Fidell (co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice).

 The media blitz has come before the upcoming Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand-jury process, at which a wide range of evidence can be presented by either side for consideration. While most major outlets try to present a balanced picture, others have rushed to judgment, convicting or acquitting before all the facts are known. The truth likely has elements of each:

  1. Bergdahl’s a traitor (e.g. Fox News, National Journal.) Between his hippie dad (who spoke Arabic in the Rose Garden when Bergdahl was released) and Bergdahl’s own e-mails to that same dad (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) that said he was “ashamed to be an American,” conservative outlets from Fox News to National Journal have long been calling for the harshest punishment possible. This week they zeroed in on photos of Bergdahl seemingly joking with his captors, and interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit who challenged his account of the week he was captured. Many quote those platoon-mates and others as substantiating the root of one of the “misbehavior” charges:, that lives were lost as his peers were ordered on search missions to find him.

  2. He’s a conscientious objector (e.g. The Nation, Democracy Now). The assertion may A make the most sense to veterans who actually achieved a discharge as objectors – something that happens only after a long process in which a soldier persuades his command that s/he’ sincere, not disturbed, and has gone through a “crystallization” in which military service became incompatible with his/her belief system. As a staffer in the 90’s with the Committee for Conscentious Objectors, I had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through that process; I’ve since met others, from more recent wars, who were quoted this week in articles positing that Bergdahl was a true dissenter from the war in Afghanistan. They cite Bergdahl’s statement that he was just trying to report some command misconduct and tag him a whistleblower; Veterans For Peace, some of whom are CO’s, issued a statement calling for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

  3. Just a screwed-up guy, who should never have been in the military in the first place (Military Times, countless editorial pages).These writers want neither to valorize Bergdahl nor execute him, arguing that “he’s been punished enough.” The case has been made that Bergdahl should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard,instead of being welcomed in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Berg’s initial desire to serve appears to have been strong. What he was signing up for is less clear, given his original desire to join the French Foreign Legion and his father’s observation that a young Bowe thrived on hero narratives, that the young man is now was “[legendary British soldier/adventurer] Bear Grylls in his own mind.” There’s also been a pretty strong case made for dysfunction within Bergdahl’s unit, given the loose, unstable chaos seen in a BBC documentary filmed before his capture. Some writers point out his homeschooling and the poor grammar of his written statements, and speculate about whether he was prepared at all.

  4. Besides, what about… Last but not least are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than in using him to make a larger political argument, about the 2009 prisoner swap, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done – or, like Jesse Ventura, to wonder aloud why Bergdahl is being charged long before military personnel who approved torture at secret prisons overseas.

This is all before anyone has seen the evidence headed for that courtroom. Most military journalists I know have urged me, and by extension all of us, to wait at least until the Article 32 hearings are over before coming to any conclusions. But the truth may be hard to come by, since some relevant evidence — intelligence findings about Bergdahl’s captivity – may be declared “classified” and thus closed to the press.

Nonetheless, I hope that as the case proceeds, a sharper picture of the young man in question will emerge, and that we can all shake off our preconceptions enough to see him.–

Bergdahl court-martial: Did he aim to misbehave?

I swore I wouldn’t write anymore about Bergdahl until I’d talked to his attorney. That may change soon. But for now, I can amplify that attorney’s voice:

That PBS NewsHour was one of the more useful of the reports I saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.”)

saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.“)

Today’s news is about Bergdahl’s account of his torture by the Taliban, but just as informative are his letters home from prison.

More later, undoubtedly.

Some actual news, some not quite

AintMarchincoverbyAlexYou can likely guess the “not quite.” (I think I’ll use Alex’ image as the standard-bearer for these news roundups….)

  • First and foremost, there’s hope for Andre Shepherd, and a possible higher profile: Wall Street Journal:  “Now German officials must decideWall Street Journal f whether Mr. Shepherd qualifies as a refugee under European Union law as outlined by the court. That sets up a potential clash between American and European law in such sensitive areas as the Iraq war and military desertions, although U.S. officials have to this point not been heavily engaged in the case.” I’ll write more about this in a full post later: I want to talk to his lawyers first.
  • Gizmodo on DOJ completely redacting their own supposed proof of harm done by Snowden. Reading the headline, at first I thought this item (via VICE) was actually about that doubletalking DOJ attorney you see in Citizen Four, trying to persuade a San Francisco courtroom that the NSA shouldn’t be accountable to judicial review.
  • “At the VA they hand out opiates like candy.” I’ve heard that a lot, and it was good to see MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow highlight the issue, working with Aaron Glant – who in addition to his work with the Center for Investigative Reporting, wrote for Haymarket’s the iconic book on Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • I’ve said often that I didn’t want to write about Bowe Bergdahl without talking to him or his attorneys – something that never stops partisan media from speculating. Now The Hill has chimed in with “news” that a decision about Bergdahl is coming “in the near future.” Looks like all you need is ONE quote from the Army secretary and then pack in all the partisan backstory. and Presto – file and get paid. Journalism? I’m not sure.

bowe bergdahl, who walked away from Omelas

bergdahl

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:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7M33hz69A0%5D

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.”