What the Bergdahl affair tells us about the hidden costs of a decade of war
Imagine that you are Robert Bergdahl. It’s not hard if you’re a parent. For the past five years, you’ve been terrified and obsessed. Your son Bowe has been captured by the Taliban, and you will do anything–anything–to get him released. You are a former surfer, a former truck driver, a Republican. Bowe has always been a delight and a worry, smart, fragile, ephemeral. Before he joined the Army, he lived in a Buddhist monastery. Before he left for Afghanistan, he made a deep-dive study of the local culture, history and language.
So you decide to do a Bowe-like thing. You try to show respect toward his captors. You learn their language and history. You grow your beard out in scraggly Salafist fashion. You learn that one of his captors has lost a son–shades of Homeland!–to an American missile strike. You may have been touched by Stockholm syndrome: you now know this war has been a horror on all sides. You give a speech at an Idaho Republican Party fundraiser and ask for compassion for Bowe’s captors. There have been at least three years of negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban, a prisoner swap for Bowe’s release that might lead to peace talks. But nothing has happened.
And then he’s released. Suddenly, you’re standing before cameras in the Rose Garden with your wife Jani and the President. In gratitude, you say the words in Arabic that precede any public speech or film or performance: “In the name of Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.” Your hometown of Hailey, Idaho, is readying a parade to honor Bowe. But all hell breaks loose. First, it’s all about Bowe. He’s a deserter. He may be a traitor. He left his body armor on his cot and walked out of his combat outpost; he left a note saying he was done fighting. (Later, it turns out he left no note.) Some members of his platoon, understandably infuriated, are on television–an organized Republican public relations assault–saying all sorts of terrible things about him. (Later, the New York Times reports that the platoon was troubled, “raggedy” even before Bergdahl left it.) There are reports that your son became a semi-spokesman for the Taliban, that he was allowed to carry a gun. (Later, there are reports that he tried to escape twice and was placed in a cage, in darkness, shackled, for weeks at a time.)
Next, they come after you. Sean Hannity says you uttered a “war cry of Allah” in the Rose Garden. Hannity has two Islamic “experts” on his radio show who don’t refute the claim. One of them asserts that you “radicalized” your son just as the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers “did.” But Hannity knows a main chance when he sees it. Back to the war cry: “And you think the father interpreted it that way and purposely said that in the Rose Garden, and it was sending a message and the President–you could see the President smiling there as he says it.”
So, somehow, after five years of mind-bending parental torture, you have become a pawn in a right-wing meta-story: the President is a secret Muslim sympathizer. Oh, and you may be a Muslim terrorist sympathizer too. You’re getting death threats. Your town cancels the parade. Finally, in your defense, a former pastor of yours tells the Christian Post that you and Jani have been “really hurt,” that you are practicing Christians. “I’ve prayed with both of them regularly,” he says. “They both have been through a torture mill that I cannot begin to comprehend–five years of a living death. It has affected their health, both physically and mentally.”
And the worst is yet to come: now there are reports that Bowe doesn’t want to talk to you, that the Army psychiatrists don’t think he’s ready for a family reunion. You’ve alluded to troubles he would have coming back, so this might not be a total surprise. But you are now experiencing the media equivalent of that steel cage in which Bowe was confined.
It is possible, of course, that Robert Bergdahl became a Taliban sympathizer during the years his son was held in captivity; it’s possible Bowe was complicit as well–we’ve seen this story before. If so, he’ll be court-martialed. But we don’t know the facts yet. And we have leaped, with reflexive bloodlust, to crucify an American family that has already suffered too much–a scapegoat sacrifice to a decade of blood, during which we leaped into Iraq, which seems to be slipping back into civil war, and distended the war in Afghanistan, all based on things we surmised but didn’t really know.
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This appears in the June 23, 2014 issue of TIME.