Two weeks ago, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was a forgotten American hero. Conservative news sources like this one routinely invoked him as evidence that the Obama administration did not care about the troops — that he was willing to just forget about an American POW in his mad rush to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
Now, of course, Bergdahl is a deserter, a collaborator, and a traitor — somebody who definitely did not deserve to be rescued. And he is the subject of the emotionally powerful, logically empty narrative now being constructed in our national discourse.
It goes something like this: “In an effort to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison and make Americans less safe, Obama traded the 5 most dangerous men in the world for one evil American deserter who did not deserve to be rescued.”
But let’s pause for a moment and consider that there is an actual human being in the middle of this story that we really know very little about. There is a person who fought for our country, who has been accused of a lot of terrible things, and who has not yet had an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
And let’s examine our own behavior in light of three things that, I believe, make a lot of difference.
1. We are all processing the Bowe Bergdahl narrative through a powerful confirmation bias.
The Obama administration did this from the start when they called Bergdahl a hero. That suited their narrative. But this was the standard conservative narrative about Bergdahl, too, back when Obama wasn’t doing anything about the situation. When Obama did do something, the narrative shifted, and a lot of different “facts” started to emerge about the good sergeant’s disappearance.
There are now so many “facts” available about Bergdahl that just about anybody can grab onto whatever evidence they need to prove whatever they need to prove. And as generally happens in such cases, people grab on to whatever supports the narratives that they want to believe. And since none of us really has any idea what happened that night, Bergdahl is a blank slate that we can turn into whatever ideological stick we happen to need to bash our opponents with.
2. Nearly all of the narratives about Bergdahl have been built to serve partisan political agendas.
The White House tried hard to stage manage the release as proof of Obama’s commitment to soldiers at a time when the Veterans Administration was mired in deep doo doo. But, within hours, political strategists organized a swift-boat style attack on Bergdahl that has been extraordinarily successful in defining the agenda ever since. And we have now spent the better part of a week debating accusations and rumors.
The most tragic thing about all of this is that nobody actually cares much what actually happened or what the guy being accused of being a traitor has to say. We are looking for stories to justify our political narratives. This turns the actual human being named Bowe Bergdahl into a political cartoon. And it means that none of the nuances of his motivations and actions are likely to survive the relentless simplification of our political process.
3. The entire debate over Bergdahl’s status is irrelevant to the questions that are actually at issue.
Whether Bergdahl is a hero or a traitor is of great importance to the emotional content of our public discourse. These are both loaded words that have the potential to move large numbers of people to action. But, logically, this is not a debate about a soldier’s fitness to be rescued.From the perspective of the commander-in-chief of the United States military, Bowe Bergdahl was a soldier who had been taken prisoner by the enemy. Though he may have been accused of desertion, or leaving his post, or collaboration, or whatever, none of these things had been proved at the time of his release by any process that respected his rights as a United States citizen.
When President Obama negotiated for his release, he was negotiating for the release of an American prisoner of war. Period.
This does not mean that the prisoner swap was right, or that it was legal, or that it was justified. But it does mean this: if trading five enemy prisoners for one American soldier is unjustifiable, then it would be unjustifiable for any solider of any rank or any reputation.
If the prisoner swap was justifiable, then it is justifiable for any American soldier, whatever his reputation or the circumstances of his capture. We do not subcontract out our military discipline to the Taliban.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl may be a hero. He may be a traitor. Or, just possibly, he is a fragile, flawed young person who could not withstand the enormous pressure of a long war. But he is a human being with dignity and an American citizen with rights. In the coming months, he will have an opportunity to tell his side of the story, and he may (or may not) be subject to military discipline for his actions.
The process that he will go through is one of the main things that makes us different from the Taliban. When they suspect someone of being a deserter, they simply cut off his head. As the good guys, we are supposed to do better.