Robert ‘Bowe’ Bergdahl is a US Army soldier who was held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan from June 2009 until his release in May last year. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held for years at Guantánamo Bay.
Last week, U.S. Army announced it plans to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and the rare charge of misbehavior before the enemy. Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s lawyer, said he can’t remember a case of an actual prosecution for that charge, and he has been a lawyer since 1969. He explained how “the charge entails things like dropping your rifle or running away from a battle, this kind of thing. What the Army seems to have done here, is gotten creative and turned it into a sort of catch-all where they can take any other offense, in this case an offense of desertion which they are also charging, and sort of escalate the whole thing into world war III by calling it misbehavior before the enemy.” If convicted, Bergdahl faces life in prison.
Bergdahl’s defense will probably center on an Army probe that found he walked off his post in an attempt to reach another U.S. base to report on wrongdoing in his unit. The investigation has not been released, but CNN cites senior defense officials who say Bergdahl claimed to be concerned about problems with order and discipline at his post in Paktika Province in Afghanistan and also had concerns about ‘leadership issues’ at his base.
In the final e-mail Bowe sent to his parents (on June 27th, 2009, published by Rolling Stone), he described how he had become disillusioned by the war:
“The future is too good to waste on lies… 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.”
The e-mail went on to list a series of complaints: Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.” His battalion commander was a “conceited old fool.” The military system itself was broken: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”
In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “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.”
He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is America is disgusting.”
In a short video made by The Guardian, Bob Bergdahl, Bowe’s father, said: “I don’t work for the military. I don’t work for the government. I don’t represent the American people. I’m a father who wants his son back.” He also talked about the need for a deeper understanding of the conflict and compassion towards the people of Afghanistan.
Bowe Bergdahl is not a man America should persecute. Still he is being persecuted. His bravery is not the kind of bravery America now rewards. It is just not that clean, not that exclusive, not that useful, not that one-dimensional. His truth is not the truth that is heard easily. It’s a pill that’s hard to swallow, but it just might be the only way to real healing.