Newsmaker: Bowe Bergdahl

The US soldier, who was held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years, has continued to dominate the headlines in the US this week after his release in exchange for five detainees from Guantanamo Bay, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Powered by automated translation

“I will promise you this, that if we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do. I will get our troops home. We will bring an end to this war. You can take that to the bank.”

The words of one Barack Obama on October 27, 2007, uttered during his presidential campaign two years before he assumed office in the White House. And, true to his word, Obama has overseen the steady withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there was, until recently, one pawn left in the game – one piece of unfinished business – in the shape of an American soldier called Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl had, until his release on May 31, been held captive by Taliban forces after being taken prisoner on, or just after, June 30, 2009. Yet, while any “normal” release of an American prisoner of war would be a catalyst for national high-fiving, the US hasn’t really known what to think this time around because, in the eyes of many, Bergdahl is a deserter and a traitor who abandoned his post, put himself into the hands of the enemy and then expected his country to rescue him. Right now, nobody knows for sure what happened on that night five years ago, but it’s a political hot potato because, to secure his release, five ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released in exchange – something that had been on the negotiating table since January 2012.

“They’re the five biggest murderers in world history. They killed Americans. I suppose Senator [John] Kerry is OK with that?” fumed the US senator John McCain, when it emerged that they were to be freed. Known as the “Taliban Five”, the prisoners were being held for “at least” 12 months in Qatar after being transferred from the infamous Cuba base – the people in question are high-ranking members of the Taliban, including the army chief of staff, the deputy minister of intelligence, a former interior minister and two other senior figures.

Questions immediately began to be shouted, not only by the US public, but also by various lawmakers and Congress representatives. Did this action tell the world at large that America does, after all, negotiate with terrorists? Would this action encourage any nefarious group or individual to take hostage US troops, safe in the knowledge they’d end up getting what they wanted? And, even ignoring these two concerns, why, when US federal law states that when any Guantanamo prisoners are to be released or transferred, Congress must be given 30 days notice by the president himself, didn’t this happen here?

The answers to these concerns, as well as those surrounding Bergdahl's initial disappearance, may or may not come to light, but it's obvious that this is a story that won't be going away anytime soon – apart from anything else, it raises serious questions regarding army recruitment in America. On Wednesday this week, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that friends of Bergdahl had come forward to say that, in 2006, when he was 21 years old, he had been given an "uncharacterised discharge" from the US Coastguard after just 26 days of basic training. One close friend of Bergdahl's told The Washington Post that the reasons for his discharge were ­"psychological".

"A discharge on those grounds," said The Telegraph, "would normally disqualify a recruit to the armed forces. But in 2008, when Bergdahl enlisted for the military, the US army was issuing regular waivers for new recruits as it struggled to fill the ranks for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Indeed, Bergdahl’s mental state might mean the difference between returning to life as a free man or being tried and prosecuted as a deserter who put the lives of his fellow soldiers in grave danger by going AWOL and needing to be rescued. “When one of your shipmates goes overboard, you go get them. You don’t ask whether he jumped or he was pushed or he fell. You go get him first and then you find out,” said the White House spokesman Jay Carney this week. That finding out process will now be in full swing.

In an incredible report for Rolling Stone magazine in June 2012, the late Michael Hastings dug deep into the history and the state of mind of Bergdahl, visiting his parents at their home while they watched YouTube videos of their emaciated and incoherent son pleading for his life, begging to be rescued. Bob and Jani Bergdahl were, by all accounts, very open about their family's past.

Their son was born Bowe Robert Bergdahl, on March 28, 1986, in Sun Valley, Idaho, where they had moved to from California after college, building a two-bedroom farmhouse deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. Bob was a construction worker and Jani worked “odd jobs”, both keeping a low profile while schooling their two children at home.

By the time that he was five years old, Bergdahl could ride horses and shoot rifles and he went on to develop a love for motocross and stereotypical boys’ adventure stuff. When he was 16, however, he’d had enough of home life and he absconded to be with a girl he’d met at a nearby fencing school. “To me,” said his father, “it was the normal path teenagers take. Like going to college – you get into all this stuff.”

Four years later, his thirst for adventure led him to Paris, where he tried to learn French so that he could enlist in the French Foreign Legion. His application was refused, something that his father said devastated him. “They just didn’t want an American home-schooled in Idaho. They just said: ‘No way.’” Or had the Legion’s recruiters picked up on something in Bergdahl that was missed by the US army?

Bergdahl became more and more obsessed with the life of an adventurer, regularly tuning in to the Man vs Wild television show, presented by a rather famous ex-soldier. "This became his role model," said his father. "He is Bear Grylls in his own mind."

In the spring of 2008, Bergdahl confessed to his parents that he had signed on the dotted line and that he had joined the US army. His mother dearly wished that he’d joined the navy instead, where he wouldn’t have been put on the front line in Iraq or Afghanistan, and both parents said that he’d joined under a false premise. They said that their son thought he was going over to help villagers rebuild their lives, not to engage the ­enemy.

According to his fellow officers, Bergdahl isolated himself and was known as a loner, and he was relocated to Afghanistan from his Alaska training base in March 2009. “If this deployment is lame,” he’d allegedly said to another soldier, “I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

Three months later, some of his critics would argue that he appears to have done exactly that, although there’s no clear evidence to support the claims that he simply deserted his post – it’s almost entirely circumstantial. The American public, though, wants answers and it wants them right now.

It’s clear, though, that this is and was a troubled young man, one that perhaps should not have joined up. He wanted an adventurous life, possibly to escape the mundanity of small-town America, and ended up being possibly the last piece in a war that has split opinion the world over. He has, he says, endured starvation, torture and solitary confinement in a pitch-black metal box and, while he’s no doubt ecstatic to have been freed, the pressures that he’s so far felt are likely to be nothing compared with what’s to come.

“Bowe’s own tour of duty in Afghanistan,” remarked Hastings, “mirrored the larger American experience in the war – marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity.” As with so many things in this age of information overload, perhaps we will never know for sure.

Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.