Why Is Bowe Bergdahl Being Labeled a Traitor?

An American soldier detained for five years is coming home. So why is that divisive?

President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity.
National Journal
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Brian Resnick
June 2, 2014, 11:52 a.m.

This should be a tri­umphant mo­ment.

An Amer­ic­an sol­dier, held cap­tive for five years in Afgh­anistan, is mak­ing his way home. Six oth­er sol­diers have died in at­tempts try­ing to re­cov­er him. For five years, his par­ents waited, with scant up­dates, know­ing their son was the only Amer­ic­an pris­on­er of the Afgh­anistan war. And he’ll be com­ing home in the wake of the news that United States will with­draw com­pletely from the re­gion in 2016, sig­nal­ing that this chapter of Amer­ic­an his­tory is com­ing to an end.

Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl, who was cap­tured in 2009, is now in the care of the U.S. mil­it­ary in Ger­many, and is be­ing eval­u­ated and treated be­fore re­turn­ing home. This is the res­ult of a pris­on­er swap — five Afghan Taliban de­tain­ees at Guantanamo will be re­leased. Ac­cord­ing to De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, there were re­ports Ber­g­dahl was in bad health, which spurred the dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts to get him home.

“As pres­id­ent, I know that I speak for all Amer­ic­ans when I say we can­not wait for the mo­ment when you are re­united and your son, Bowe, is back in your arms,” Pres­id­ent Obama said Sat­urday, flanked by Ber­g­dahl’s par­ents, when he an­nounced the deal.

But not every­one is shar­ing in the tri­umphant feel­ing.

Aside from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans call­ing the pris­on­er swap fool­ish (in­clud­ing Sen. John Mc­Cain, who was a pris­on­er of war him­self) for na­tion­al se­cur­ity reas­ons, a vo­cal con­tin­gent of the mil­it­ary com­munity is call­ing Ber­g­dahl a trait­or and a desert­er. “I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything go­ing on,” Sgt. Matt Vi­erkant, one of Ber­g­dahl’s pla­toon mates, told CNN’s Jake Tap­per re­cently, and that sen­ti­ment is echoed on the Face­book group “Bowe Ber­g­dahl is NOT a Hero!”

So what happened?

In June 2009, Ber­g­dahl is said to have walked off from his pla­toon while on guard duty, go­ing ab­sent without leave, or AWOL. Be­fore he left, he asked a su­per­i­or if it would cause prob­lems if he left the base with his equip­ment (which, in ret­ro­spect, makes his in­ten­tions to leave seem clear). The Army sent out search teams for him in the fol­low­ing weeks, and in the course of those op­er­a­tions, six died (ac­cord­ing to army per­son­nel ac­counts; the pentagon dis­putes that claim). Nath­an Brad­ley Bethea, a sol­dier in­volved in the op­er­a­tions to re­trieve him, il­lus­trates the dis­rup­tion these res­cue mis­sions caused in The Daily Beast.

His dis­ap­pear­ance trans­lated in­to daily search mis­sions across the en­tire Afgh­anistan theat­er of op­er­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly ours. The com­bat pla­toons in our bat­talion spent the next month on daily heli­copter-in­ser­tion search mis­sions (called “air as­saults”) try­ing to scour vil­lages for signs of him. Each op­er­a­tions would send mul­tiple pla­toons and every en­a­bler avail­able in pur­suit: ra­dio in­ter­cept teams, mil­it­ary work­ing dogs, pro­fes­sion­al an­thro­po­lo­gists used as in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing teams, Afghan sources in dis­guise. They would be out for at least 24 hours. I know of some who were on mis­sion for 10 days at a stretch. In Ju­ly, the tem­per­at­ure was well above 100 de­grees Fahren­heit each day.

A month after his dis­ap­pear­ance, the Taliban re­leased a video in which Ber­g­dahl con­firmed his cap­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to emails writ­ten to his par­ents ex­cerp­ted in a 2012 Rolling Stone fea­ture on Ber­g­dahl’s cap­ture, Ber­g­dahl was grow­ing dis­il­lu­sioned with the U.S. mil­it­ary ef­fort in the re­gion.

“The fu­ture is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “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.”

“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his par­ents. “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.”

The story lines here are con­flict­ing and they are all emo­tion­al. If he ac­tu­ally did walk off base, Ber­g­dahl made a mis­take that would have been pun­ished ap­pro­pri­ately by the Army. But he’s suffered for five years in cap­tiv­ity (he’s said to have lost his com­mand of Eng­lish). The polit­ic­al side of the story is also di­cho­tom­ous. Obama has made prom­ises to both draw down the war in Afgh­anistan and slowly empty out the Guantanamo Bay pris­on, but it’s clear that re­leases like this one will not be polit­ic­ally easy. Does this sig­nal to Amer­ica’s en­emies that there is a re­deem­able price for Amer­ic­an sol­diers? Or is it just the real­ity that de­tain­ees will have to be dealt with, some­times for dip­lo­mat­ic gains?

The Rolling Stone pro­file sug­gests Ber­g­dahl left due to the psy­cho­lo­gic­al pres­sures of war: “Bowe’s own tour of duty in Afgh­anistan mirrored the lar­ger Amer­ic­an ex­per­i­ence in the war ““ marked by tragedy, con­fu­sion, mis­placed ideal­ism, de­luded think­ing and, per­haps, a mo­ment of in­san­ity.” Ber­g­dahl is un­likely to face pun­ish­ment for leav­ing his post in 2009. “Five years is enough,” an un­named de­fense of­fi­cial told CNN.

We’ll have to hear his side of it, which see­ing the me­dia at­ten­tion paid to his par­ents, will likely come. And we’ll hear more of the polit­ic­al re­per­cus­sions as well: Re­pub­lic­ans are call­ing for hear­ings on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions.

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