Bergdahl may have been delusional, but the whole game of war is delusional
Suzanne Moore Guardian/UK 4 June 2014
It isn't like the movies. The returning hero shown in the video is pale, thin, clutching at a plastic bag. He is trying to cover a twitching eye. The bag is removed as he is patted down before being escorted into the helicopter. Indeed, Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban for five years, may in the eyes of some fellow soliders be a deserter who needs further punishment. Parts of the American media are rabid with this demand.
Bergdahl is being held in Germany, considered not well enough, physically or mentally, to be taken back to his family. A video the Taliban made of him in captivity, seen by the US government and not made public, is said to have prompted the prisoner exchange. The swapping of five Guantánamo prisoners in return for one American is also being hotly contested. That Guantánamo is still open is a stain on Obama's presidency but he powerfully defended this exchange. The American way is to bring home their own. "Period. Full stop." There is honour in this.
Bergdahl's parents – especially his father, with his bushy beard, his learning of Pashtu, his understanding of the geopolitics of where his son was fighting – do not look like the standard US military family. Bowe also learned Pashtu. One of the reasons that Bin Laden could operate so well in the late 90s was because there were no CIA operatives who spoke the local language.
The Bergdahls live, actually and psychologically, in places that most British people fly over. They are free-thinking Idaho Calvinists who home-schooled their children and talk about ethics and philosophy. Alongside this is a strong survivalist streak: by five, Bowe could shoot a rifle and ride horses. His need for adventure led him at 20 to Paris to learn French in order to join the French Foreign Legion. He was devastated when they refused him. By 2008, the fantasy was to go to Africa to teach self-defence techniques to those brutalised by local militia. He spoke of "taking out warlords in Darfur and Sudan".
Unsurprisingly, this didn't happen either and he ended up in the army, and in Afghanistan. Soon, according to his father, he saw that "we were given a fictitious picture … of what we were doing in Afghanistan". He saw innocent children casually run over by soldiers. Either he consciously deserted or he was not in a fit state to see the danger he was putting not only himself in, but also those who were sent to look for him.
Those who now want to try Bergdahl seem to be in utter denial about the mental state of those who have been at war. When soldiers come home, many are armed and dangerous. America knows this better than we do. I will never forget sitting in a late-night diner in the States in the 80s when a guy walked in with a sleeve gun. He said he had been in Vietnam, and he didn't want to hurt anyone. He wept and put the gun on a table. Everyone gave what they could.
Those who are anti-war tend not to care for these walking wounded. The left can be callous. The military concentrates recruitment where there are no jobs or chances of further education. In the US, it waives criminal records. Bergdahl's background should have raised alarm bells, as should Chelsea Manning's troubled past. Instead Manning found herself even more bullied and ostracised and put in an impossible situation.
Bergdahl and Manning dissented. Others who have served remain in the combat zone. They continue to kill: often their wives, children or themselves, and this is hushed up. From the invasion of Afghanistan up to 2008, in the US there were 150 cases of fatal domestic or fatal child abuse by "new veterans". Last year, Panorama revealed that more British soldiers had killed themselves in 2012 than had died at the hands of the Taliban in the same period.
How easy is it to be clear about what is heroic and what is traitorous when the mission is on ever-shifting sands? We were in Afghanistan to stop poppy production, free women, defeat the Taliban, root out al-Qaida. Our generals always said we would have to talk to the Taliban, as we did. Jihad is an ever-movable feast of death, as we have seen in Syria. The game of war that Bergdahl played, his desire to be the good guy in a bad place, was delusional. But all of it is delusional: the slaughter of innocents that we are to accept as somehow worthwhile.
War comes home now raw, skeletal, damaged. Such is the denial about what has been done that Bergdahl must be welcomed with yellow ribbons or denounced totally as evil personified. He wrote that "the horror that is America is disgusting". Whether he was sane or insane when he wrote this will now be battled over. But whatever happens, Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. And like so many he will always remain one. [Abridged]