The Bowe Bergdahl POW exchange is a Rorschach test, and as a nation we’re failing it. The venom being ejaculated into the public discourse by the authoritarian jingoistic right over this case is simply beyond the pale of common sense and decency.
A Yemeni prisoner in US military custody at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 was quoted in the June 8 New York Times as asking “why those people are not simply happy that this American soldier will soon be reunited with his family.” Exactly. Any minimally sane society feels that way about the repatriation of its last (and in Bergdahl’s case, only) soldier from enemy captivity in a recent foreign war. The proper reaction to such a homecoming is gratitude and joy. Bergdahl was released shaken but physically intact and ambulatory. That there is any controversy at all over his successful repatriation after half a decade in enemy captivity in exchange for five Taliban prisoners at a time when the US military continues to indefinitely detain dozens of other Taliban (genuine and falsely accused) at Guantanamo Bay, often in clear violation of US and international law, is just fucking bizarre. There’s no excusing it, and there’s no explaining it, except to posit that the United States has gone into terminal moral and mental decline as a nation.
Every society has its belligerent lunatics, but not every society gives its belligerent lunatics a broadcast platform from which to poison and disorient its politics. To have some asshole saying nasty shit about his own country’s prisoner of war from a soapbox on Speaker’s Corner or a bar stool in a VFW hall is unfortunate, but it’s harmless enough. It’s just one fuckhead being a fuckhead; nobody has to listen to him, and of the three people listening, there’s no guarantee that any of them believes a word of his tirade. Broadcast the same opinions of the same fuckhead everywhere from NPR to Fox News, and suddenly he’s no longer just some ungrateful Looney Toons with an axe to grind about some crazy shit; now he has the imprimatur of major news outlets, ones that are presumed to triage news stories for importance, credibility, and propriety before airing them. If Megyn Kelly and Renee Montaigne are both discussing it, there must be something to it. Right? They wouldn’t both go headlong down the same rabbit hole in pursuit of a bunch of nonsense. Would they?
They would. They do. In clusterfucks like this phony and disgraceful Bergdahl scandal, the news is often metanews. It’s news stories about news stories about other news stories, and when the chain of custody is followed back to its genesis, the originator usually turns out to be the equivalent of some treacherous, spiteful rat bastard down at the VFW hall. It’s the kind of garbage you’d hear from guys who get sauced out of their minds by ten every morning and saw shit in Nam, kid, although usually the ones who go on the tube about this sort of bullshit are the ones who clean up well. John McCain, for example, has recurrent PTSD, usually manifesting itself as an explosive temper, a tendency to do loopy shit like reworking a Beach Boys ditty into “bomb, bomb Iran” on the campaign trail, and, according to disturbingly credible accounts, was complicit in the abandonment of other American POW’s in Vietnam after the end of hostilities, but he’s non-senile enough not to get shunted off the talk show circuit for being a total embarrassment, and just by virtue of being a US Senator he has street cred. He’s Inner Party. Dude’s first-tier Cathedral, maybe high second-tier on a bad day. If I go out in Midtown Manhattan and try to flag down Matt Lauer to air spurious objections to the conditions of Bowe Bergdahl’s release, I’m on a fool’s errand; if Bomb-Bomb Iran wants to air the same spurious objections verbatim, his staffers have unlisted numbers for bookers at the Today Show.
The way this Bergdahl scandal came into existence was that he got swiftboated by a few platoon mates (indiscreet at best, utterly treacherous at worst) and then a claque of shitheads, including a number of diabolically immoral chickenhawks, piled onto the bandwagon. It was asshats talking trash about an American soldier who had been brutalized for years in Taliban captivity. The question is why the full spectrum of mainstream media gave print space and airtime to these people to publicize their smears. The Army had already investigated Bergdahl shortly after his disappearance in Afghanistan for desertion and related crimes, and it had determined that there wasn’t enough evidence for a court martial. Under renewed pressure from fuming yahoos, the Army is now conducting a second investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance, having closed its initial months-long investigation years ago.
This is an excellent object lesson in screaming bloody murder until government officials who should be independent cave in and waste resources on one’s special interest. Let’s assume that Bergdahl is tried for and convicted of desertion. As a result of deserting his post, or wandering away if you wish, he has already spent years imprisoned by the enemy in conditions far worse than anything he’d be subjected to in a US brig. Desertion isn’t even a very serious crime under the UCMJ; the mere length of Bergdahl’s Taliban captivity was far beyond the length of sentence that any US soldier could expect for a first-time desertion conviction. There are plenty of sensible JAG officers, and none of them will want to snuggle with this sticky wicket. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a case where some desk officer at the Pentagon told a team of field investigators, “Look, I’ve got a bunch of crazies yelling at me about this Bergdahl stuff, so try to look busy and humor them until they get bored.”
These accusations that Bergdahl wasn’t good soldier material are true in a strict sense, but they miss the big picture. He had allegedly twice previously wandered away from his post for hours at a time before walking away from his field camp in Afghanistan for the last time. This is flakier than one would hope, not what one would expect from an infantryman. Nor is a prior discharge from the Coast Guard for poor performance. Think about this: the Coast Guard, the least militarized, mellowest branch of the US Armed Forces, booted the guy for just not being up to snuff, and then he transferred to the Army, which basically said, “Infantry? Eh, sure.” Then, after he started wandering around against orders in training, and again on a deployment in Afghanistan, the Army still figured, “Infantry? Eh, sure.” You’d think they might want to do something more about him than maybe having an NCO ask him, “Bergdahl, what the fuck?”
The problem here wasn’t Bowe Bergdahl. The problem was the goddamn Army. Privates don’t call the shots around there. The reason he floundered instead of being discharged was that his commanders wanted him in combat, not drummed out on a general discharge. Nor was he the only problem on their hands: his infantry unit in Afghanistan was considered to be in fairly bad disarray.
Remember that this is the same Army that recruited the soldiers responsible for the depravities of Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan mass murderer Sgt. Robert Bales, and Nidal Hasan, the major (and Radovan Karadzic colleague in head doctoring) who modified the old Vietnam bottom-up grassroots tradition of fragging into a small-arms attack by a member of the officer corps on anyone present. The Hasan attack wasn’t some kind of bolt from the blue, either; he had spent weeks conspicuously going around Fort Hood putting on a hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-jihadi act. These guys and gals are bad, but they’re not even the rock bottom of the recruiting barrel. Plenty of men (and maybe a few women here and there) are admitted on bad conduct waivers despite having serious criminal histories and overt criminal proclivities from day one.
The politics surrounding these cases are really twisted. It seems that a lot of people who had nothing to say about Bales or the Abu Ghraib sadists flipped their shit at Hasan because he’s a Muslim and are now flipping their shit at Bergdahl because he wasn’t gung ho about the US imperial project in Afghanistan and was sympathetic to the Afghan civilians being terrorized by his army. It’s crazy. Nidal Hasan can say all the inflammatory religious and political shit he wants, but at heart he’s just another mass murderer like Bales. Like most American mass murderers, he murdered other Americans. Bales might well have done likewise had the nearby population of Afghan civilians not been a softer target than the other American soldiers on his post. Their Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama, loves him some soft targets, too, always being one to bring a drone to a gunfight.
These aren’t ones to believe in honor among murderers. And these people who are pissed off at Bergdahl, who are appalled that the president didn’t invite Congress into sensitive, time-critical negotiations with a foreign military enemy for the belated release of an American POW, who believe that this brief secrecy somehow exceeded the president’s powers as Commander-in-Chief, are for the most part totally cool with Obama’s decision to use a robotic bomber to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, a native-born American citizen, in sovereign Yemeni territory for the non-crime of talking trash about our country and encouraging God’s mujahideen to take up arms against its imperial army in the holy land. As if Awlaki, a religious agitprop dipshit, was responsible for all anti-American feeling in the Middle East and South Asia, rather than, say, the US military’s recent history of bombing wedding parties.
An Air Force officer corps in the death grip of apocalyptic nondenominational fundies doesn’t help. I try to hold out hope that my country remains capable of self-government, but sometimes my most realistic hope is that when the allies are forced to occupy the United States, the administration of the Mexican Sector isn’t unduly dysfunctional.