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Chris Lombardi: The Bergdahl Discussion Dilemma

The risky story-telling complicit in the public discourse on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

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Photo courtesy of the US Army.

By Chris Lombardi

This week, after the release of the 393-page court transcript of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing, we should all see the former prisoner of war a little more clearly–more than a year after we first saw him on TV, a skinny Army private in Arab robes, squinting at the sun.

But, unfortunately, that clarity is trickier to get at than we probably let ourselves believe. Despite the release of the transcript, most of the news on Bergdahl is breathless anticipation of the podcast Serial or the new movie by Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kathryn Bigelow, as if this young man trained, fought, left his post, and was captured only for our amusement. Glamour Magazine notes that Serial host Sarah Koenig “will set to the challenge of uncovering the truth. Is the charge just? Is there more to the case than it appears?” These are the very questions journalists have been asking from the beginning, whether the late Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone in 2012 or the many military reporters covering the hearings, like the stellar Sig Christensen from the San Antonio Express-News. These questions are a good start in a culture where people are quick-sometimes too quick-to take a position that matches their other proclivities. This is as true, in some ways, of left-wing publications like The Nation, which ran pieces about Vietnam deserters when Bergdahl was charged, as it is of Donald Trump, who believes Bergdahl’s actions are unconscionable.

It’s been easy, whether trying to report this or commenting from afar, to use Bergdahl’s story as a Rorschach blot for one’s own previously held convictions about war.

It’s no wonder that, in response to the recent media flurry, an anonymous member of Bergdahl’s platoon told Maxim Magazine: “I think it’s the height of crassness for them to do this when it could potentially affect the legal proceedings… I assume it will be a great way to paint us as kooks and sore losers.” As someone who’s already included Bergdahl’s name in the title of my forthcoming book, I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from the Boston Massacre to Bowe Bergdahl, I worry that I deserve that soldier’s disdain, too–that I’m planning to create “a nifty diorama for hipsters to marvel at,” instead of sticking to the facts of the case. I’m fighting to remain a journalist who doesn’t do that.

It’s been easy, whether trying to report this or just commenting from afar, to use Bergdahl’s story as a Rorschach blot for one’s own previously held convictions about war. In those hearings, both the prosecution and defense provided details carefully chosen to transform that blot into their preferred version of the story. From the prosecution: testimony from his commanders and fellow troops who were ordered on a ten day search-and-rescue mission. “[Bergdahl] needs to be held accountable,” said one, a former SEAL. From the defense, arguing that the consequences have already been dire: Prisoner-of-war experts quoted by Stars & Stripes described how Bergdahl “was beaten with hoses and cables, chained spread-eagled to a bed, starved, humiliated and finally kept in a metal cage before his release last year in a controversial prisoner swap.”

Harder to fit into one’s own preconceptions, though, was evidence of Bergdahl’s “mental disease or defect.” Witnesses noted that before enlisting in the Army, Bergdahl had washed out of the Coast Guard without completing training; peers and psychiatrists described the young private as troubled. Major General Kenneth Dahl tagged the young man as a “too-idealistic” wannabe super-soldier, who’d left his post that day hoping to contact the commanding general 20 miles away about problems in the unit, problems later “unsubstantiated” and perhaps a product of his own delusions. After five years in horrible captivity, including two escape attempts, a court-martial and prison sentence now made no sense for Bergdahl, Dahl said.

Dahl made this statement after months spent investigating Bergdahl’s disappearance, including an in-depth interrogation of Bergdahl himself. It is the general’s full report, after that investigation, that the defense is now suing to have released. Fidell cites Supreme Court rulings that support making such material public if it is needed “to vindicate his constitutional right to a public trial–something which had immediate relevance to the potential findings and sentence of a court-martial.” In the resulting ping-pong of court filings, the Army denied that law’s relevance, saying that a “Petitioner’s reputation is outside of this court’s jurisdiction as it plainly does not affect the findings and sentence,” a response duly reported by the wire services; before Fidell issued an official counter-response, he released that hearing transcript–which does have Dahl’s entire testimony.

Wondering if Bergdahl belongs in my book’s title, if he’s really a dissenter, or something else, I found evidence that pointed both ways.

This duet is mostly aimed at the trial’s hearing officer, who is now considering whether Bergdahl should be court-martialed, medically discharged, or something in between. That officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, is a JAG and West Point professor who served in Bosnia-Herzegovnia as the 10th Mountain Division’s Chief of International and Operational Law, before moving on to Fort Rucker in Georgia and post-invasion Iraq. But, in the case’s fervid political context, the lawyers are also aiming their fire at you and me.

I’ve followed those “Article 32” hearings as closely as I could–even before Fidell released the entire transcript, part of his suit to have all investigations released because “Sgt. Bergdahl has been the subject of a record-shattering year-long campaign of vilification in parts of the media.” After the hearings, I see in Bergdahl neither a traitor nor a prisoner of conscience: Just someone who thought he’d be a hero, and who responded to war’s brain-fracturing conditions with a dramatic scheme to save his unit.

Wondering if Bergdahl belongs in my book’s title, if he’s really a dissenter, or something else, I found evidence that pointed both ways. As delusional as his whistleblower ambitions may have been, I do sense in Bergdahl’s story a similar core of questioning, of desire to make a difference no matter the cost, as other dissenters in history. I can count examples from the Revolutionary War forward.

Jacob Ritter was a Philadelphia infantryman in the Revolutionary War who enlisted “against my better judgment,” and long nurtured qualms about taking up arms. Born in 1757 to “honest and industrious” parents in the outskirts of Philadelphia, Ritter had just turned 20 when General Washington’s army called for local backup before the Battle of Brandywine. Enlisting when his Lutheran pastor “preached the propriety and necessity of standing in defense of our country against her enemies,” Ritter hardly expected to be seized by the un-Lutheran conviction that “it was contrary to the Divine Will for a Christian to fight” as the Battle of Brandywine exploded around him. “I supplemented the Almighty that if he would be pleased to deliver me from shedding the blood of my fellow-creatures that day, I would never fight again,” Ritter writes in his memoir. “Throughout the engagement I remained perfectly calm, though the bombshells and shot fell around me like hail.” To his fellow soldiers, as well as any watching him hold onto his never-fired musket, Ritter’s principled stillness may have looked like cowardice-perhaps they felt like Bergdahl’s peers did when they found his weapon and other Army equipment abandoned on his bunker.

Another dissenter, Colorado Lieutenant Silas Soule, refused to take part in a massacre of Indians in 1864, and testified against the perpetrators of the massacre after it occurred. Soule, who’d once traveled with John Brown to rescue slaves in Kansas, was also known as something of a loose cannon, joining the 2nd Colorado Volunteers only after failing to strike it rich in the Gold Rush. But his temper predisposed him to saying no to his commanders at Sand Creek: “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did,” he wrote a friend right after the massacre. “I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain.[…] They were all horribly mutilated.” Soule’s Army testimony was less colorful, but held just as much pain.

Perhaps the more familiar dissenters of recent collective memory are the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who camped out in 1971 in full uniform on the Washington Mall, some throwing their medals away, occupied the Statue of Liberty four years in a row, and took over the Los Angeles Veterans Administration for months in 1974, with the iconic Ron Kovic leading a nineteen-day hunger strike until the VA Secretary flew out to California to talk to him.

Historically, it has often taken a level of self-regard similar to Bergdahl’s, who reportedly saw himself as a combination of Ayn Rand’s John Galt and reality-TV adventurer Bear Grylls, to go against the tide with such ferocity. The tide is especially fierce in this case, given the number of people using him as a stand-in for victims of the recent wars and/or the Obama administration.

The public conversation is a dance between letting us get attached to a story and still having the rigor to leave pure speculation out of it.

Conservative outlets from Fox News to the National Journal, all outraged at the prisoner swap that enabled his release, have slammed him from day one, from his long-haired dad on TV to Bergdahl’s own e-mails, (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) in which he said he was “ashamed to be an American.” Over and over, they quote his platoon-mates to substantiate the much-disputed “misbehavior” charge that lives could have been lost during the search missions organized to find him. Now, after the hearing, I gather from Twitter that many in that camp will still settle for nothing less than life imprisonment, the maximum sentence for misbehavior. Many, as Trump demonstrated in a cutthroat gesture last month, want far worse.

Less loud, but present throughout, have been the voices of those who see Bergdahl as more of a whistleblower, and maybe even a conscientious objector. Many are soldiers and veterans who have themselves achieved a discharge as objectors–something that happens only after a long process, in which a soldier persuades his/her command that s/he has gone through a “crystallization” in which their beliefs became incompatible with military service. Two veterans from the war in Afghanistan, former medic Brock McIntosh and former Army Ranger Rory Fanning, have made the claim that Bergdahl may be one such objector. Bergdahl’s father Bob–assailed by the right for having a beard and speaking Arabic–spoke at this summer’s convention of Veterans For Peace, some members of which are CO’s, which had called for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

That’s the crowd I might have expected to be in. I was a staffer in the 1990’s with the Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through the process of showing that their beliefs were real. I was thus struck by the testimony, in the hearing, that a peer had recommended Bergdahl be sent to a chaplain to sort things out. If that had happened, Bergdahl might have found a way to articulate his concerns into an antiwar stance. But he didn’t. All we have are those emails via Rolling Stone, in which he recounted events that felt like war crimes. More recently-public words of his; letters from prison, some journals–read as barely literate, and sound more like the confused kid Dahl describes–someone who was a superhero in his own mind and wanted to prove it.

In any event, despite the possibilities and ambiguities, Sgt. Bergdahl is not a Rorschach blot, from which to create a character for my book or someone’s movie. The public conversation is a dance between attachment to a story and the rigor to leave pure speculation out of it. This narrative nonfiction, which is what both Koenig and I are doing in our respective media, is that much harder because, as much as possible, we’re trying to tell the truth, a truth loaded with biases and weight.

I have no idea what the Army will ultimately decide. But I can hope that we all will have the compassion and decency not to use this guy as a political football, or a tool for enhancing ratings.

Chris Lombardi (@CrisAintMarchin on Twitter) lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her book, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, was incubated in Samuel Freedman’s Book Seminar at Columbia University and will be published by The New Press. Until then, you can find her work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Al Jazeera America, and her book’s working WordPress site, http://aintmarching.net.

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