Compared to why he and others in the U.S. military were in Afghanistan to begin with, arguing whether Bergdahl is a deserter is beside the point.
If you didn’t think that things could get any lower in American politics, then the events of the last week were surely a shocking reminder that no matter how rancorous our discourse, things can always get worse. That’s because a simple prisoner exchange has suddenly, out of nowhere, become a fresh source of outrage for those on the partisan right.
If you have been living under a rock and failed to notice it, the right-wing firestorm that erupted over the trading of five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years, was something completely unexpected.
How is it, one can reasonably ask, that recovering Sgt. Bergdahl could have possibly been so controversial?
To this, critics of the swap say, look at whom we traded and who we traded them for. If the American right wing is to be believed, the five prisoners released in exchange for Bergdahl were some of the worst-of-the-worst — diehard fanatics dedicated to killing our troops wherever and whenever they could. Bergdahl, on the other hand, is a traitorous deserter who, in leaving, provided the opportunity for a number of his fellow comrades to be ambushed while on a patrol looking for him.
For America’s Dolchstoss right-wing, who see weakness in every breath the president takes and for whom every setback or less-than-glorious outcome abroad must be caused by traitors lurking at home, the trade was yet more evidence of President Barack Obama’s contempt for his country and the men and women in uniform who defend it. Yet, up until a few days ago, many on the right who are now condemning both Bergdahl and Obama were urging the president to do everything in his power to bring the wayward soldier home.
In a display of political message discipline from which the old Soviet Comintern could have taken lessons, loads of conservatives went from literally praying for the sergeant’s release to scrubbing websites and Twitter posts of any positive reference to him — a flip that occurred, literally, overnight. Even the vaunted John McCain — a POW during the Vietnam War — went from urging the president to work for Bergdahl’s release, even if that meant accepting a prisoner trade, to condemning the president for undermining America’s security by doing exactly what McCain himself had earlier said was acceptable to do.
In all, it reflects a typical display of mindless partisan bickering, but an eerily chilling one, too, as it shows so clearly how the party line in conservative America gets set. Indeed, it was very much like that scene in Orwell’s 1984 when a party official, caught flat-footed with a sudden change in war policy in the middle of a speech, changes the name of the country Oceania was at war with — without missing a beat — by concluding that he and his people had “always been at war with Eastasia,” when, in fact, Oceania had been at war with Eastasia’s opposite, Eurasia, when he started his speech.
Only in this case, of course, instead of the Ministry of Truth sending out Big Brother’s directives to Airstrip One’s proles and party members, it was Fox News and right-wing talk radio disseminating the talking points of the conservative media illuminati to its thralls in the Republican Party. They even had their two-minute hate to confirm for the entire world to see that not only did they hate Sgt. Bergdahl, but they had always hated him and his entire family, too. Even now, they are trying to turn the poor sergeant into an updated version of Emmanuel Goldstein by claiming — with little in the way of evidence, other than having watched too much “Homeland” — that Bergdahl may have even converted to Islam and articulated his desire to declare jihad against both his country and the military he had once been part of.
Not even Orwell could have written a better dark farce than what is playing out on the right. What’s equally disquieting, though, is the degree to which the right seems willing to vilify a uniformed individual of the military without an investigation or court martial, let alone a close examination of the facts as they stand. Just as Fox is now breaking the news that Bergdahl may be a terrorist traitor in sheep’s clothing, for instance, The New York Times is reporting that the sergeant had a bit of a history of wandering away from his post and then returning. Perhaps, then, the sergeant wasn’t actually a deserter after all, but merely a poor soldier.
This does not clear Bergdahl of the charge of desertion, of course, but it perhaps suggests that maybe the story is not so clear cut that pundits should be raging on TV for the man’s blood. What’s more, it turns out that even if Bergdahl deserted, he is seemingly no better than the thousands of other American servicemen and servicewomen who also deserted during the conflict — only instead of walking away on the battlefield, these individuals never showed up at all and typically deserted while still in the U.S. by failing to return from leave or to muster when ordered on deployment. What’s more, the military has been low-key about going after these AWOL folks that no one talks about — perhaps out of fear that others would follow as the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan became unwinnable, shambolic messes.
To his credit, Bergdahl at least showed up and risked getting shot at and captured. As for the claim that he got his comrades killed because they went searching for him on patrol, as war correspondent David Axe has pointed out, there is no real proof of that, either. War is war, full of violence and chaos, and in the increasingly violent Afghanistan of 2009, the men ultimately killed on that patrol could have been killed at some other time, in some other way. Indeed, it is quite possible that in searching for him, U.S. troops drew off Taliban from elsewhere, thus reducing casualties that would otherwise have been inflicted on other U.S. troops.
The point is that no one really knows, and rather than keeping Bergdahl in limbo, the president made a decision to bring him home. He was brought home not necessarily to a hero’s welcome, but to an investigation that should be properly carried out and which will hopefully settle the matter when it comes to determining how and why Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl found himself in the hands of the enemy for five years. That’s what due process and justice are for — and ostensibly the reason we were in Afghanistan to begin with.
Yet that is not what Fox News and the others in the right-wing universe want to hear or accept. To them, the troops are always pure and stouthearted. They are not like you and me, regular people with hopes, dreams, desires and, yes, fears of their own. In the real world, though, they are individuals who are people first, soldiers second, and much like the rest of us, they are just as capable of doing the wrong thing as the right thing.
Seeing the troops in this way, however, would necessarily lead the American Right down a path it might not want to travel, as for them the troops are just that: a shapeless mass that embodies all that is good and right about the country they are fighting for. Admitting that, yes, soldiers can be villains as well as heroes and that they are individuals just like you and me would necessarily require the right to look past the self-serving propaganda dished out about our armed forces that is so often used as cover to justify using them in the most outrageous, counterproductive and useless ways.
For, in the end, the true wrongdoers here are not the Taliban, Sgt. Bergdahl or any of the troops, from private to combatant commander, sent to that hellish place to do our bidding. No, that title goes to the specious empire builders, gutless politicians, flimflam hawks, know-nothing flag-wavers and the countless members of the ignorant public who are at fault for sending our men and women to fight a war no one cared about in a country no one understood with too little support to get anything done in the first place or to provide resources for them once they got back home from serving in that awful place.
Thus, whether Bergdahl deserted is almost beyond the point. If he turned his back on us it may be only because he realized that, after serving there, we here in America had long ago abandoned him and everyone else in Afghanistan through our own apathy about the conflict we sent him to participate in. Bringing him home reminds us of that fact and our own failure to look past the rhetoric in order to prevent the shambles that led to his being over there to begin with. No wonder the right is throwing stones at him — it’s a lot easier than looking honestly at oneself in the mirror.