Guess what? Some American patriots want Bergdahl dead. After all, it is believed he left his isolated Afghanistan base and wandered off, which could be interpreted as dereliction of duty, even desertion, even defection, even treason. Send in the firing squad.
Oh, wait. The death threats have been coming in for Bob Bergdahl, the captive soldier’s father. FBI and police are investigating a series of ugly emails promising he will get what he deserves. Who could have whipped up such animus? Could it be loose talk from Republican politicians, Fox News, right-wing radio? Indeed, it could.
It looks like Bergdahl’s chief offense is being different, which used to be thought of as part of the point of America. Bergdahl was a competitive cyclist as a young man who missed his shot at the Olympics when Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The irony is thick enough to cut with a knife.
Bergdahl then moved to Idaho, married and had kids. He was a carpenter before he became a UPS delivery driver for 28 years. He continued to be an active outdoorsman cycling, riding horses, trekking, camping, bow hunting and rifle shooting. The kids learned all these pioneer skills. He and his wife are also devoutly Christian and homeschooled their children. Yikes, sounds like the NRA meets the moral majority.
The Bergdahls are known to all in their small community of Hailey, Idaho, population 8,000, and the town organized annual Bring Bowe Back days after he was captured. It had to cancel the planned homecoming for fear of the threatened arrival of thousands of protesters. Good Americans all, of course.
The Bergdahls lived largely off the grid, hunting game, living partially off the land on their acres, which isn’t that odd in rural Idaho. They had no TV, but lot of books. Uh oh, here comes trouble. Bergdahl apparently read philosophy, theology and other unacceptable material. One of his neighbors sad she believed Bergdahl “almost thinks and reads too much.” Yes, that’s suspiciously unAmerican.
His son was good at outdoor pursuits, but also tried whatever caught his fancy from fencing to ballet. His skill as a marksman set him apart when he entered the army, but so did his unsocial, bookish upbringing which appears to have made him a naive, isolated idealist. He wanted to serve others in a muscular Christian way, a kind of throwback to a 19th century ethos found in the far-flung servants of he British Empire and men like Teddy Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, he bought the recruiter’s spiel that by joining up he could help the Afghan people. No doubt their definitions of “help” differed. Bowe appears to have quickly found duty in Afghanistan disillusioning and his fellows troubling. He seems to have been among the better soldiers in a platoon that became notorious in training for its screw-ups. Unlike his comrades, he used his downtime not for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but to study the history, geography and culture of the place he was heading. This made him seems an alien being to his more “conventional” fellows. Those curious about Bowe’s journey should read the illuminating piece by the late Michael Hastings in the June 7, 2012 Rolling Stone, (America’s Last Prisoner of War).
Bowe arrived in Afghanistan in March 2009 and by June 30 had fallen into enemy hands where he remained for five long years, tortured when he tried to escape. It is a sad story. His life might have taken a far different turn in a different unit, a different line of work. Clearly he should never have joined and should not have been put in so isolated a post so soon with so little adult supervision. His brand of scholar adventurer is out of date and no longer in demand.
His father has been damned for telling his son to follow his conscience when Bowe expressed deep disillusionment with the Army and the mission in Afghanistan as he found it. That has been interpreted as the father encouraging his son to betray his country. But isn’t that what Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett taught us all to believe? “Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead.”
In any case, this interpretation seems improbable given the enormity of he likely consequences. Rather, when Bowe complained the Army was filled with “liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies,” his father, 8,000 miles away, seems to have been counseling his son not to behave as immorally as those around him (i.e. to follow his conscience) and told him to try to find a few like-minded people to hang with.
For this, a plethora of holier-than-thou conservatives have damned the elder Bergdahl. Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC morning windbag, called him “a bad father” and said he’d tell his sons never to leave their post. Of course, it is unlikely to come up. Neither Scarborough nor his sons, young men in their twenties, bothered to enlist. Easy to quarterback from the bleachers.
But far from being a careless father, Bergdahl seems to have been single-minded about saving his son for the last five years. To draw attention to Bowe’s plight, Bob vowed not to shave until Bowe was released. For this he has been mocked and vilified for looking like a Taliban by snarky Fox News talking heads who also have failed to serve in Afghanistan. But Bergdahl was right to suspect that those who are quick to send young people into harm’s way turn amnesiac when they are killed, captured or wounded.
The Taliban look may also have been intentional since Bergdahl began to learn Pashto and Arabic and study the history of Afghanistan hoping to understand the captors and perhaps appeal to them directly. He discovered tribal elders wear beards so his might seem to them to confer gravitas.
Like his son, Bob Bergdahl can be dismissed as naive and unrealistic. He can be thought too trusting in his willingness to believe that he might appeal to the simple humanity of those holding his son. He was clearly too Christian to adopt the bleak, eat-or-be-eaten mindset of the realpolitik jingoes who are all for foreign adventures as long as it is someone else or someone else’s children who have to go in harm’s way.
But does any of that make Bergdahl a bad father? Does growing a beard make him an American Taliban? Does advising one to follow his conscience make him deserving of death by lynch mob? Has it really come to this? And if so, is it he or his accusers who resemble the Taliban?
(As a postscript, it is always worth recalling who never wore a uniform. Dick Cheney. Karl Rove. Sean Hannity. Bill O’Reilly. Pat Buchanan. Rush Limbaugh. Mitch McConnell. John Boehner. Glenn Beck. William Kristol. And many more.)