The tiny town of Hailey, Idaho had been gearing up all week for the eventual return of a man long hailed as an American hero caught in the nation’s twelve-year “War on Terror”. When it was announced on May 31st that 28 year-old U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who remained the sole American prisoner-of-war held hostage in either Afghanistan or Iraq, was finally returning home the reaction in Hailey and in most of America was ecstatic. Fast forward less than 24 hours later and the mood had not only soured, but completely reversed course, with conservative Americans and even some liberals decrying the price paid for his safety as not being worth it. The political dialogue surrounding Bowe Bergdahl’s release has become so intensely vitriolic that, after receiving threatening calls from people all over the country, the town of Hailey has decided to call off the “Welcome Home” celebration. What’s so astounding about this is that not a single new piece of evidence or information has come to light since the announcement of his release that was not already available for the public to read going at least as far back as June of 2012. Yet this hasn’t stopped the American public from suddenly deciding it would be justifiable to have left a prisoner-of-war in enemy hands, even if his health was quickly deteriorating. Now, Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents are learning the hard way how very little it takes for the American public to turn viciously against them in the blink of an eye, spewing an amount of hate and vitriol once thought unimaginable. All the while their son is hospitalized in Germany, recuperating in order for him to return home and be greeted by an America which continues to allow itself, even at this late date, to be easily whipped into frenzy by the mere allusion to September 11, 2001. Politicians, for their part, eagerly await the opportunity each election-cycle when they can utilize this fear for their own electoral advantage.
One of the supposed reasons people are so angry about Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, after he was held hostage for five years in Taliban custody, is because they feel too much was given away in exchange for his safe return: namely five Afghan prisoners-of-war who’d been illegally detained by the United States Military at its well-known house of torture, GITMO, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (*) That these particular detainees, all of whom were detained since at least 2002, would regardless have to be released eventually anyway was by no means a secret. As the war in Afghanistan is said to be winding down (at least military occupation-wise), there is no way for the United States to legally justify in terms of international law why it should continue holding prisoners-of-war captured on the battlefield of a war it claims to no longer be fighting. The five inmates in question were not affiliated with al-Qaeda. They were members of the Taliban, which held control of the government in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. (Though I suspect most Americans don’t realize there’s a difference). By most estimates, anywhere from 55-85% of the nearly a million men who, at some time or another, were interned at Guantanamo Bay were basically guilty only of “being at the wrong place at the wrong time” (the “wrong place” apparently being Afghanistan). In fact, the majority of them were turned in to U.S.-aligned Afghan forces by bounty-hunters who saw the widely-distributed flyers promising “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers.” Given the history of blatant CIA-lies, one wonders how is it that their “Intelligence” is still accepted at face-value? The very fact that “confessions” were most often obtained through means of torture is grounds enough for their dismissal. When an inmate is being tortured, an interrogator is often demanding a specific question be answered in the affirmative. Otherwise, there is no end in sight to the inmate’s suffering, making it all the more likely the torturer will get the answer they want.
The five prisoners-of-war who were released to the nation of Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl have each been ranked “mid-to high risk” regarding the potential “threat” they pose the U.S. The former detainees in question are, in no particular order: Mullah Norullah Noori (former “governor of Balkh province”), Mullah Mohammad Fazi (former Taliban “chief of army staff”), Khair Ulla Said Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Mohammad Nabi Omari. The latter two, it should be noted, maintained during their entire captivity that they were initially arrested while trying to assist the United States in tracking down members of the Taliban. Regardless of whatever the truth of the matter might be, a deal that involved trading Taliban prisoners-of-war for the secure release of the American P.O.W. was in the works as early as 2011, and the Rolling Stone reported rather extensively on it in its June, 2012 issue. Even then, however, there were signs that Republicans would oppose any such prisoner transfer agreement with the hope that they might be able to capitalize on it and turn it into an issue before the 2012 presidential election. At a closed-door meeting in January of 2012 that included top aides from the Obama Administration, both Houses of Congress, and the Military Command, Senator John McCain of Arizona lambasted the administration for even considering the release of any of the Gitmo detainees. “They’re the five biggest murderers in world history,” exclaimed McCain, only to have his melodramatic performance checked by long-time Senate colleague John Kerry of Massachusetts. “John, the five biggest murderers in the world?” asked the Massachusetts Senator in utter disbelief. “They killed Americans!” McCain quickly shot back. And, as if to taunt Sen. Kerry, he asked, “I suppose Senator Kerry is OK with that?” It didn’t stop there either. The U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, was reportedly issued a dire warning from top-ranking Republicans on the Hill that they would see to it that any such exchange of P.O.W.s would be made into “Obama’s Willie Horton moment.” In other words, the GOP would spend the entire 2012 campaign peddling the notion that Barack Obama “negotiated with terrorists”, much the same way they successfully tarnished Democratic Nominee Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election when they flooded the networks with advertisements featuring an image of a Black man named William Horton (who the commercials decided to call ‘Willie’ for full racist effect) who’d been convicted of raping a white woman while on a furlough from jail. Despite the furlough policy’s being initiated by the candidate’s predecessor, the ads were so effective in their appeals to white racism that they’re generally credited with sinking Michael Dukakis’s campaign. (**) Republicans would not be able to try and ‘Willie Hortonize’ President Obama this time around, however, because the Taliban themselves put an end to the talks in March, 2012, on the grounds that they did not approve of the U.S.’s insistence that the 5 Gitmo detainees be stationed in Qatar instead of being allowed to return to their homes.
With the 2012 election in hindsight, Republicans largely came around to supporting a deal to get Sgt. Bergdahl home, including even Senator McCain. When it was announced Saturday that Sgt. Bergdahl would be returning to the States after five years in captivity, politicians of all stripes quickly responded by posting messages on their Twitter feeds offering words of praise for a man they referred to as a “national patriot”, stating their commitments to keep him and his family “in our prayers.” All of these messages were deleted within less than 12 hours, as the subject of Sergeant Bergdahl and the Guantanamo detainees became politically toxic. Many conservatives, who for months and in some cases years excoriated the Obama administration for “not doing enough” to get Sgt. Bergdahl home – insisting it was America’s duty “not to leave her men and women in uniform behind under any circumstances” – in the blink of an eye were singing a completely different tune. One right-winger who’d earlier even started a “Bring Bergdahl Home” petition, in the course of just a few hours went from calling on Pres. Obama to do more to save him to calling for his immediate execution! Republican Senator Kelly Ayatte, who previously called on the Administration to literally “do all it can to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home safely”, is now claiming that Obama’s decision “endangers U.S. national security interests”. She also claims the five former Gitmo detainees (who by the way have been tortured and detained for the past 13 years themselves) will endanger the U.S. by “returning to terrorism.” To bolster this position, war-hawks keep parroting the line that “29 percent of former Guantanamo detainees [have] reengaged or [have been] suspected of reengaging in terrorism” since release. This assertion is deceptive in a number of ways. In order for one to “reengage in terrorism”, he must have previously engaged in terrorism to begin with, and there is little evidence that the vast majority of the inmates who’ve been interned at GITMO through the years were ever initially engaged in terrorism. It must also be conceded that 29% is a rather small amount considering how detainees were kidnapped from their native countries, tortured, cut off from the American legal system of “justice”, not allowed to see or hear from their families, routinely subjected to invasive cavity searches, and regularly had their religious beliefs desecrated under the banner of the United States empire. America should be showing gratitude to the 70% or more former detainees who didn’t wish to seek revenge after the hell they were put through.
While the hysteria on the part of the right-wing over the release of Guantanamo detainees is tragically predictable, the demonization campaign against Sergeant Bergdahl himself has certainly come as a shock. The earliest such pronouncement that he was a traitorous “deserter” came back in July, 2009 – the very same month the American public was notified of the fact that an American soldier was being held hostage by the Taliban. Live on Fox “News”, an analyst named Ralph Peters declared that the Taliban would do America a great big favor if they would just go ahead and execute Bowe Bergdahl. This incendiary rhetoric drew condemnation from both conservatives and progressives alike, a very rare occurrence in this day and age. Fast forward five years later and that consensus is nowhere to be found. Senator McCain, fresh off wining and dining with neo-Nazis in Ukraine, has once again reversed course and now thinks it was a terrible idea to give up “the worst of the worst” for one American soldier. He was of course only echoing former Vice President Dickhead Cheney who said the Obama administration “negotiated with terrorists and I don’t think they got a very good deal.”
One of the stated objections conservatives have to this “transaction” is that it was a “5-for-1 deal” – 5 Afghan P.O.W.s for 1 American P.O.W. They ignore the fact that the Taliban only had one prisoner to trade with, whereas the U.S. has numerous. But make no mistake about it. Were this to have occurred during the Bush presidency, Republicans would be praising the president for “putting patriotism before politics.” But as they’ve proved time and again during the Obama years, they will quickly turn on positions they’ve held for decades if the current president signals even the slightest hint of support for them. Former congressman and current Tea Party darling Allen West insists that Bergdahl’s “disappearance can only be classified as desertion”, while conservative bullshitter Bill Kristol says the Obama admin “traded terrorists for a guy who walked away.” In its own spin on the narrative, the right-wing tabloid Drudge headlined that “Obama saved a rat”. Curiously, several soldiers who served in the same unit as Bergdahl have joined in on the criticism by appearing in interviews that were arranged by GOP operatives. Aside from suggesting he was a deserter, the former platoon-mates describe it as rather “odd” how Bergdahl used to spend time learning languages like “Dari and Arabic and Pashto”. The irony is that they themselves should have followed Bergdahl’s example by at least trying to learn to understand these languages, considering how these are the languages spoken by the local population the platoon was supposedly there to defend.
Even Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl have come under attack by the right-wing, with Fox “News” Channel commentators predictably leading the way. Prime-timer Bill O’ Reilly said that, because Bob Bergdahl was wearing a long beard, he “looks like a Muslim.” And another one of the channel’s bigots, albeit with a much a smaller audience, Laura Ingram declared, “If [Bob Bergdahl] weren’t so light-skinned, he actually looks like the terrorists.” (^) These 21st century McCarthyites were grasping at straws and misconstruing every piece of information they could find about Bob Bergdahl in order to promote the theory that he is in fact a “Taliban sympathizer.” The most controversial thing they could uncover was a tweet he’d sent out (which is no longer available) after receiving word that his son would at long last be returning from captivity. It read: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child. Amen.” I can’t for the life of me understand what the hell people find so objectionable about that statement! The United States has failed to prosecute or even charge most of the inmates held at Guantanamo Bay. These inmates have suffered and been kept away from their families long enough. And the notion that “God will repay” the slaughter of innocent children is right in line with the beliefs of many American Christians. In fact, it makes even more sense than most of the rhetoric espoused by U.S. evangelicals. The quick rush to judge and condemn any and everything perceived as running counter to ultra-American nationalism has clearly gone beyond the point of fanaticism.
Democrats have also joined in on the assault, condemning the release of “five dangerous enemies” in exchange for someone who “could possibly be a deserter.” Some, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) claim they are concerned primarily about the manner in which the exchange was conducted, because the administration failed to notify congress 30 days in advance. This is complete nonsense. Not only has the fact that such an exchange was likely to happen been public information since 2012, but what are the chances Congress could be trusted not to politicize the P.O.W. exchange in front of the entire world? In fact, the current Congress can’t seem to get a single thing done, and spends its time with an endless amount of hearings that produce next to nothing of any value. Not to mention the fact that Guantanamo Bay prison was opened without congressional approval. Therefore, it seems rather redundant that congressional approval should be required to end a prisoner’s detention. The supposedly liberal MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews has been particularly harsh in his criticisms of Sgt. Bergdahl, echoing the Republican talking-point and expressing fear that the “five worst terrorists” have been exchanged for “a deserter” (Not to mention he inexplicably keeps pronouncing the nation of Qatar as “gutter”. What’s that all about?). Iraq War veteran and current congressman Rep. Patrick Murphy declared that if an investigation determines that Bergdahl did indeed desert his platoon, he should be court-marshaled and “rot in a jail cell.” This is coming from a congressman who actually supports the prisoner exchange!
So how exactly did a 28 year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho get catapulted to the center of a national political debate? According to his parents, Bowe expressed a desire to offer help and assistance to people who were less fortunate than himself from a very young age. His father Bob says his son was “instilled with truth. He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics.” He once even tried to join the French Foreign Legion, only to be rejected. In 2008 he decided the best way he could help others was to enlist in the United States military. He trained for a total of sixteen weeks at a base in Benning, Georgia before being assigned to a Division in Fort Richardson, Alaska later the same year. The men who were his peers during this period describe him as being a bit of a recluse, spending weekends studying and reading books instead of partying at nearby strip clubs with the rest of the trainees. One such book read by Bergdahl, according to Specialist Jason Fry, was “about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” In early 2009, with President Obama shifting the American military’s focus away from Iraq and into Afghanistan, the Division received word that they would soon be deployed to the Afghan province of Paktika which borders with Pakistan. Shortly before their departure, Spc. Fry says that Bergdahl made a remark to him which later came to be of significance. “If this deployment is lame,” said Bergdahl, “I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”
The deployment arrived at their designated base in March to find an extraordinarily mountainous region where residents lived in abject poverty, particularly those living in the tiny village of Yaya Kheyl. Bowe Bergdahl was uniquely committed among the soldiers in the unit to the mission of “counterinsurgency”. He showed a genuine interest and a concern for the local villagers which the other officers clearly lacked. Spc. Jason Fry reported how Bergdahl often “spent more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon.” Such a familiarity with the locals they were allegedly sent to protect was unthinkable to most of the platoon members, as evidenced by the video footage shot by a British filmmaker who filmed the regiment for The Guardian. In one video a compound is being raided by the unit when a woman shouts, “Look at these cruel people! Leave us alone!” as soldiers are pointing their guns at her. The footage also contains from the mouths of U.S. soldiers themselves what they think about the local Afghan people. “These people are so full of shit,” says one soldier, before offering a disparaging assessment, “They say, like, the Taliban comes down and aggravates their town and harasses them and shit. There’s like, three dudes, two dudes at a time. How many people are in your village?… Why don’t you fucking kill those motherfuckers? All of you have AKs or some type of weapon.” “But they come down and they kill us,” the same soldier says in a mocking tone. “Well kill them. I mean if someone is going into my hometown, I know my hometown wouldn’t fucking stand for that shit. They’d be like, ‘Fuck you, you’re dead.’” On another day two different soldiers are shown conversing with each other when one of them observes how “these people [the villagers] just want to be left alone” and tend to “their crops, weddings and stuff like that.” The other soldier rather arrogantly responds by asserting, “Yea, they got dicked with [by] the Russians for 17 years, and now we’re here.”
Things started getting progressively worse as spring passed into summer. Bergdahl had a real wake-up call to the insanity of war near May’s end when he caught sight of five lifeless bodies that were brought to the post he was stationed at. They belonged to an Afghan man and his four young children killed from an attack by the Taliban. Adding to this distress was the rampant corruption prevalent within the army itself, a sort of unwritten code which allowed “senior officers [to go] unpunished for screw-ups… while lower-ranking men paid the price for minor infractions.” The emails Bowe sent to his parents from time to time started taking a dramatic turn for the worse once he said he realized he’d been deceived. He’d been made to believe that his purpose for going to Afghanistan was to help the Afghan people by teaching them how to fend for themselves against the oppressive rule of the Taliban. As later expressed in the words of his father Bob Bergdahl, “We were given a fictitious picture, an artificially created picture of what we were doing in Afghanistan.” Then came the death of Lieutenant Brian Bradshaw, killed June 25th by a roadside bomb (IED). The Lieutenant’s death undoubtedly struck every soldier in the Battalion with an overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty. As one tragic event after another unfolded before his very eyes, Bergdahl’s state of mind was changing.
In an email written to his parents dated June 27th, 2009 – two days after Lt. Bradshaw was killed – Bowe Bergdahl lamented over the unbearable situation he was in, expressing an incredible amount of guilt and shame that was constantly eating away at his conscience. “Mom, dad,” the letter began,
“The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting. […]
In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools… The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same. […]
I am sorry for everything here. 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… 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 of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them. I am sorry for everything. The horror that is america is disgusting.
There are a few more boxes that are coming to you guys. Feel free to open them, and use them.”
His father responded in an email the same night:
In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore one’s conscience. Ethics demand obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like-minded men when possible.
The last words anyone remembers hearing from Bowe Bergdahl were those spoken to the superintendent on duty in the early morning hours of June 30th when he asked, “If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment?” “Yes,” the superintendent replied. And with that, the men in Bowe Bergdahl’s unit did not hear from him again. The only things he took with him when he left were a flask of “water, a knife, his digital camera and his diary.”
At 9:00 a.m., Bergdahl was reported missing. Almost immediately several predator drones, military dogs, and a search party were dispatched to look for him. With Bowe nowhere in sight, Colonel Michael Howard made locating him priority #1. He alerted all the troops at 4:42 P.M. that “all operations will cease until the missing soldier is found.” Bob and Jani Bergdahl were notified later that evening.
A potential breakthrough in the search effort came the following day on July 1st when U.S. Intelligence intercepted a conversation between two members of the Taliban in which they spoke about rumors of an American soldier being captured. Another interception carried two other Taliban members confirming that indeed an American hostage had been taken. By the next day the search effort was now a rescue effort, with “all units stationed in the eastern half of Afghanistan” ordered to assist in the search and rescue operation. Only one time were Intelligence Agents able to locate Bergdahl’s whereabouts when satellite feed captured on July 4th showed a man with a bag covering his head loaded into the back of a truck in the town of Ghazni. Troops were immediately dispatched to the area, but when they arrived he and his captors had mysteriously vanished. The American public was notified on July 7, and at the end of the month the first Taliban video showing Bowe in captivity surfaced.
Many soldiers are now venting their anger on live TV over the many lives allegedly lost while searching for Bowe Bergdahl (who was promoted to Sergeant while in captivity). Some military officials believe these claims to be highly exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, “The most intense search operation, leaked war reports show, wound down after eight days – well before the deaths”. Six deaths occurred in Paktika Province around late August/ early September, and two others were killed in a September 4th ambush. All of these appear to have occurred two months after Bergdahl went missing. According to The Blaze, one of the men in Bergdahl’s platoon (who had to remain anonymous because of a military gag order) claims three of the six late August/ September deaths occurred during a combat operation non-related to the search for Bergdahl. Other documents, previously leaked to the public by former Pvt. Chelsea Manning, show that the two men killed in the Sept. 4th ambush died “inside an outpost that came under attack.” Therefore they were not out on a search-and-rescue mission at the time they were killed. The Times continues: “A review of the database of casualties in the Afghan war suggests that Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics appear to be blaming him for every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance.” This is in spite of the fact that Paktika is an incredibly dangerous Province to be stationed at in the first place.
Somehow managing to get totally lost in the political back-and-forth over the prisoner-swap is the fact that Bowe Bergdahl has been living through hell these past five years, a hell which only worsened once he escaped his captors for a brief moment in the middle of 2011. For, after he was apprehended and returned to captivity, his captors kept him shackled alone in complete darkness every night to prevent him from running away again. Each successive video released during his captivity showed his overall health and physical appearance worsening dramatically. In a video from May, 2012 his weight had dropped to a size well below normal. And on another one of these videos he could be heard desperately pleading, “Release me, please! I’m begging you – bring me home!” Nevertheless, none of this is enough to stop members of the news media and political establishment from calling for his head. The man who was touted as a symbol of American heroism and patriotism for five years was not even allowed a period of recuperation before the mob began demanding he be investigated, court-marshaled and “brought to justice”. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, answered these calls by declaring, “Our army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.” This must have come as a surprise to the many officers who’ve been sexually assaulted by other officers on-base but were told to keep quiet by these same “army leaders”. If actions like these can be so easily swept under the rug by army leaders, then surely they could at least do the same for a soldier who happened to walk off base.
In the end, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had little choice but to do what he did. It was just like his father said, “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore one’s conscience.” Bowe came to Afghanistan under the illusion that he was coming to help bring freedom to others. What he discovered was that “bringing freedom” often involved destroying the lives of everyday people: fathers, mothers, and even young children. His choices were limited: either continue to kill, take his own life, or walk away. He chose the latter and paid a price for it once he was discovered by hostile forces. However, he did what many other people would not have the bravery or willpower to do: he obeyed his conscience. And it would be a shame for America to rescue this man from captivity in Afghanistan only to return him to captivity in the United States.
* President Barack Obama, upon coming into office in 2009, issued an executive order on January 22 instructing that the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison be carried out in a year’s time. Not only was he blocked by Democrats and Republicans in Congress alike, but he effectively quit pushing for the facility’s closure ever since Congress rebuked him early on.
** In an incredibly disgusting appeal to the racist sentiments of white television audiences, debate moderator Bernard Shaw (who was not coincidentally the sole African American of the 4 moderators) directly asked Michael Dukakis: “If Kitty Dukakis [Michael Dukakis’s wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” It’s as if Lee Atwater was himself writing the moderators’ questions! One would have to be deaf, dumb AND blind not to realize this question was meant to stir up the resentments and insecurities many white men have in regards to relationships between Black men and white women.
^ Sources say Bob Bergdahl began growing a beard, learning Pashto, and studying other customs back in 2009 “out of a desire to better understand the world from which his son could not escape.”
^^ Jani and Bob Bergdahl are of the belief that their son did in fact see an American army vehicle run over an Afghan child, possibly playing a crucial role in his turning against the war.
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