The Crucible of Bowe Bergdahl

The anguished cauldron of Afghanistan boils over.

President Obama, speaking to the parents of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, at the White House Rose Garden Saturday.
National Journal
Major Garrett
June 3, 2014, 6:18 p.m.

The tri­al of Bowe Ber­g­dahl has be­gun. In some quar­ters, he’s already been con­victed.

Ber­g­dahl’s un­named code­fend­ant is the war in Afgh­anistan.

The de­bate over Ber­g­dahl re­flects deep na­tion­al am­bi­val­ence over Afgh­anistan, the dis­sat­is­fy­ing out­come of that war and the sick­en­ing sense of justice un­done by Taliban pris­on­er swaps. The five Taliban lead­ers traded for Ber­g­dahl may or may not at­tack Amer­ic­ans in Afgh­anistan, but their abil­ity to dir­ect or in­flu­ence fu­ture plots is bey­ond ques­tion. That they must do that for one year from Qatar is cold coun­terter­ror­ism com­fort, des­pite as­sur­ances of close mon­it­or­ing from the emir.

Noth­ing feels vic­tori­ous, bal­anced, or mean­ing­ful — even though this war, the just war after 9/11, began with le­git­im­ate fe­ro­city and pur­pose. Some parts of Afgh­anistan are semi-peace­able. Most are not. None are com­pletely peace­able. War­lords or tri­bal lead­ers rule, just as be­fore. Taliban ac­tions are fre­quent and leth­al — just like be­fore. Yes, the Afghan army and po­lice are at the point of the spear, their bat­tle­field cas­u­al­ties evid­ence of a de­sire to spare their home from Taliban cruelty. But most hardened ana­lysts of the re­gion are deeply pess­im­ist­ic about Afgh­anistan re­pelling or even de­flect­ing the Taliban after the U.S. leaves. The Ir­aq War, the one we left Afgh­anistan to fight, is a pos­sibly ter­ri­fy­ing win­dow in­to the fu­ture. In May, 779 were killed there and more than 1,400 wounded in sec­tari­an and ter­ror-re­lated vi­ol­ence.

Look at Guantanamo. Pres­id­ent Bush wanted to close it be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama did. Five years later, what’s left is a stan­doff with Con­gress and the glum real­ity that well-fed de­tain­ees there will not face con­vic­tion — in either mil­it­ary or ci­vil­ian courts — and are destined for even­tu­al re­lease and reentry in a war seem­ingly without end. If the Taliban Five, most held for 12 to 13 years, were not worthy of tri­al, it’s hard to ima­gine who would be.

All the Afgh­anistan ter­min­o­logy is opaque, even by war­time leg­al stand­ards. Even the shad­ows have shad­ows, and dark­ness feeds sus­pi­cions and tur­moil — about everything in Afgh­anistan, not just Ber­g­dahl.

Let’s start with the fact that Ber­g­dahl was nev­er leg­ally clas­si­fied as a pris­on­er of war.

Ter­ror­ist pris­on­ers in Guantanamo are not POWs either, but de­tain­ees, their leg­al status as ob­scured as Ber­g­dahl’s be­cause two na­tion states are not at war and there is no Geneva Con­ven­tion for a war against ter­ror­ism. At least not ex­pli­citly.

Was Ber­g­dahl a desert­er? Did he turn against the war it­self or his own pla­toon spe­cific­ally? Did he do both? Is one dis­tin­guish­able from an­oth­er? What were Ber­g­dahl’s motives? Who in uni­form is un­worthy of re­cov­ery? Do the un­der­ly­ing facts of Ber­g­dahl’s dis­ap­pear­ance mat­ter as much as the sense that the ab­sence of hero­ism or even a modic­um of val­or on his part gnaw­ingly re­minds us that so much in Afgh­anistan feels fu­tile in ret­ro­spect? Is part of the rage Ber­g­dahl’s pla­toon mem­bers le­git­im­ately feel about his ac­tions — be they child­ish, cal­lous, just plain stu­pid, or a grot­esque com­bin­a­tion of all three — a prim­al and ex­ist­en­tial scream over a war strategy that failed to de­liv­er vic­tory and that leaves its war­ri­ors grue­somely await­ing the Taliban’s re­turn to power?

As was fre­quently heard by those who fought the Taliban, the U.S. and its al­lies had the clocks, but the Taliban had the time.

Could Ber­g­dahl be a sym­bol of na­tion­al angst that time is on the Taliban’s side and that the now-sched­uled U.S. de­par­ture from Afgh­anistan — which in­dir­ectly hastened Ber­g­dahl’s re­lease — makes the sac­ri­fices in lives, cas­u­al­ties, treas­ure, and spir­it Amer­ica de­voted to that cause ever more dif­fi­cult to meas­ure, let alone jus­ti­fy? This feels all the more gut-wrench­ing dur­ing the week com­mem­or­at­ing the 70th an­niversary of D-Day.

I asked former Sen. Bob Ker­rey, a Navy SEAL and Medal of Hon­or re­cip­i­ent who lost part of his leg in Vi­et­nam, these ques­tions. His an­swers were more haunt­ing than I ex­pec­ted. We star­ted with the Ber­g­dahl case.

“He’s got men in his own unit ask­ing for him to be court-mar­tialed,” Ker­rey said. “That mat­ters. If he had fought his way out of an am­bush and then was cap­tured by the Taliban it would be a much dif­fer­ent deal.”

I asked about the ex­change that set Ber­g­dahl free.

“It’s al­ways dif­fi­cult to do an ex­change like this,” Ker­rey said. “It’s al­ways risky. Does this pro­voke the Taliban to want to take more U.S. pris­on­ers? I hon­estly don’t know. It’s un­fair to any pris­on­er over there to say they should not be brought home. But does it in­crease the risk to the re­main­ing troops in Afgh­anistan? I do trust [De­fense Sec­ret­ary] Chuck Hagel and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man] Mar­tin De­mp­sey and I be­lieve they have thought this through. The pres­id­ent may have the best of the ar­gu­ment on the facts. But the idea there wouldn’t be blow­back, I mean, I am con­stantly sur­prised at what [the White House is] sur­prised about. The pres­id­ent can say it doesn’t mat­ter. It doesn’t mat­ter to him. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mat­ter to oth­er people.”

Lastly, we dis­cussed the lar­ger is­sue of Afgh­anistan and the 9/11 gen­er­a­tion of war­ri­ors and the on­go­ing na­tion­al struggle to make sense of their sac­ri­fice.

“You’ve really got this un­usu­al situ­ation. We’ve nev­er fought wars like we fought them in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq. Mul­tiple tours of duty for so many and heavy re­li­ance on the Na­tion­al Guard and re­serve forces. We nev­er had that in Vi­et­nam or Korea or World War II. The older you get, the harder it is to go back in­to com­bat. You ac­cu­mu­late these stresses. We’ve nev­er fought wars like this. We just flew the wings off the plane. Un­for­tu­nately it wasn’t a plane, it was hu­man be­ings.”

That led Ker­rey to re­mem­brances of Vi­et­nam and what he fears today’s war­ri­ors may nev­er know.

“The wars in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq were nev­er really pop­u­lar. Vi­et­nam be­came un­pop­u­lar. Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan got pretty damn close to the un­pop­ular­ity of Vi­et­nam. And neither war has pro­duced over­whelm­ing evid­ence they worked or we ac­com­plished any­thing. In Vi­et­nam, we lost. Our en­emy beat us. But it was clean. You can travel back there now and see them ad­opt­ing some of the things we re­cog­nize eco­nom­ic­ally and so­cially here, es­pe­cially in South Vi­et­nam. You can’t go to Ir­aq now. If you did, most people would prob­ably say, ‘Thank you for fuck­ing up our coun­try.’ “

Ker­rey fears that may also be true in Afgh­anistan after the U.S. leaves. He ends with this thought:

“There are so many things weigh­ing down on these kids. [Ber­g­dahl’s case] brings so much of it up to the sur­face. Maybe we should lay off on Ber­g­dahl.”

And pos­sibly, in the pro­cess, lay off ourselves.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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