Amid all the extremely loud controversy surrounding Bowe Bergdahl's release from the Taliban, there’s one thing on which all Americans seem to agree at the top of their lungs: “Every single thing related to this Bowe Bergdahl incident is about me and my politics!”
It’s getting embarrassing.
The political circus surrounding the exchange is reminiscent of soccer (and/or football) hooligans fighting in the streets, in that it has little to do with the facts of the actual match. Instead, the hooligans are out in force for some quasi-organized mob violence, in which they get to beat the crap out of others for the crime of sporting the wrong team colors. Everyone on Team Red and Team Blue seems to be grabbing whatever’s available and swinging with wild abandon, connecting with anything they can hit.
“I’m gonna smash that guy’s face in with this weak-ass Iran-Contra analogy!”
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Bowe Bergdahl may be a deserter. He may be a feckless shitheel. He might even be an utterly worthless fuckwit.
But he’s America’s fuckwit.
Since the Vietnam War, steady political pressure has pushed a consensus understanding in the US that it’s bad form to leave behind prisoners of war. The US should not tweak that standard to be, "…yeah, but only if they're sufficiently heroic." That line of reasoning opens up all kinds of idiotic nonsense — who wants to go through a stack of performance appraisals to determine which guys to swap for and which to let rot and die?
If Bergdahl was a deserter, the US should punish him for it — but the US can’t make him break rocks at Fort Leavenworth for the rest of his days if he’s in Pakistan. And who aside from the Taliban wants to put the Taliban in charge of administering anything, let alone judgment on and punishment of American citizens? Even if the citizen in question is a jackass.
So whether or not he's a deserter, it’s completely idiotic to attempt to justify the prisoner swap by asserting that Bergdahl served "with honor and distinction," as some people seem determined to do. (And yes, it's even dumber if the people doing the asserting know it to be false.)
This has been political spectacle, Washington spouting self-important gibberish to itself like a narcissistic schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur.
Others try to excuse Bergdahl for going on the lam because his unit wasn’t a collection of super soldiers. Or as one US government official so delicately expressed it, “What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership?”
Well, now that you mention it, there have been credible reports of soldiers in his platoon wearing bandannas, and of others sporting bare midriffs. If a bare midriff isn’t a sign that Bergdahl's platoon was on the verge of going all Colonel Kurtz and that Bergdahl was only doing the sane thing when he deserted, I don’t know what is.
Actually, never mind. That’s fucking idiotic.
There’s even the contention that the five Taliban guys who got their “Get out of Gitmo” cards are really just big, lovable softies — despite reports to the contrary from many in the national security community. Secretary of State John Kerry has helpfully jumped in by pointing out that the US can still totally killify them to death if they get back to their old shenanigans.
Ultimately, the argument over whether the trade was worth it may itself be a bit of misdirection. Apparently there had been discussions about releasing Bergdahl, and there had been discussions about releasing five senior Taliban bad guys. The fact that releasing Bergdahl ended up married to releasing Taliban honchos was really the result of a kind of negotiator’s game of Spin the Bottle more than it was some carefully weighed cost-benefit analysis.
The specifics of what was traded for what are relatively incidental. The US was bound and determined to evict these five guys from Gitmo and was looking to see what it could get for them. The Taliban had apparently grown weary of Bergdahl’s company and was looking for a buyer. This was a flea-market swap, not some well-calibrated exchange of value.
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The Administration was apparently shocked that news of his release wasn’t the cause of spontaneous ticker-tape parades and a start of a “Bowe Knows” Nike ad campaign. Which means one of a few things is true. Perhaps in several years of thinking about Bergdahl, nobody at the White House bothered to read the report suggesting he took a powder when he was supposed to be at his post. Or maybe the White House thought nobody would notice that Bergdahl decided to make like a tree and leave. Or it could be that the Administration thought folks in the military would just be super happy about all of everything. Regardless, some people didn't do their homework.
That said, I sympathize deeply with the Administration. It’s always easy to point out what was missed after the fact, especially when everything is moving so quickly. But the Administration not only screwed up, it then doubled down on that screw-up.
Sometimes the wise move is to let an event play out neutrally, neither suppressing it nor highlighting it with a Rose Garden press conference. It's always possible to shine a brighter spotlight on something after public opinion has been gauged without expending a huge amount of political capital on the event.
But in trying to seize the moment, the White House took on political risk. And once a risky political investment turns sour, the temptation is to spin. The spin on this has not only turned out like a lot of spin — absolutely tone deaf — but it has ended up legitimizing a lot of Republican talking points, like the whole hero/deserter debate, and put the White House on its heels, responding to allegations rather than taking the initiative and driving coverage.
Sure, it’s fair to blame opportunists, especially Republican cheap-shot artists, for jumping on this. But for crying out loud, if you’ve been in the White House for this many years, opposition from your political opposition shouldn’t be a surprise. Did anyone smart enough to drool on a keyboard not expect blinding scrutiny surrounding the high-profile repatriation of the only active-duty military prisoner not killed in captivity during the entire 11-year-long Afghanistan War?
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The whole Bowe Bergdahl thing is really just about a guy. He may be a jerk. He's definitely had a rough past several years. And fortunately, he is no longer subject to the Taliban’s tender mercies. There are maybe a couple dozen people, like Bergdahl and his family, whom this whole thing really does affect.
Everything else surrounding the Bergdahl case is external crap that the Political-Media Complex can’t resist stirring up, since apparently the couple dozen vets the VA let die is old news already. This has been political spectacle, Washington spouting self-important gibberish to itself like a narcissistic schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur. It has been a nasty, dirty deal.
If there’s anything here that merits discussion, it's that it wouldn’t kill the American public to figure out whether this "leave nobody behind" thing during wars should apply to the three American civilians currently thought to be held prisoner by the Taliban.
After all, the American public has apparently decided it should always try to get its people in uniform back, even if they’re jerks. But if the US is going to do it, then it should be an ordinary thing. Ordinary enough that talking heads with perfect hair aren't compelled to turn it into a spectacle.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan