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When It Comes to Bowe Bergdahl, ‘We All Really Failed’

Category: Art & Culture,Books

I’m not looking to excuse what Bergdahl did. I’m looking to try to explain why he did it, and why it matters. No one made Bergdahl walk off the base besides Bergdahl. He did something that, as a former soldier, bugs the hell out of me, something I never did: He walked away. He pleaded guilty to the desertion charge against him. The Army, from Bergdahl’s immediate leadership up the chain to its commander in chief, all share in his failure. If Bergdahl and the Army failed this badly, that indicates a larger failure within the American society that put them in that situation to begin with. As the wars dragged on, fewer and fewer Americans wanted to fight in them, and the Army was having trouble making its recruiting goals and had serious problems with attrition at every rank. So they lowered the bar to enlist — admitting felons, giving waivers to the mentally ill, lowering intelligence and physical standards — to keep their numbers up and keep get fresh bodies into the meat grinder in Afghanistan.

According to the book, the decision by the podcast “Serial” to make Bergdahl the subject of their second season basically forced the Army to court-martial him. Do you think it was unethical of “Serial” to release recordings of their interviews with him?

I think it was scummy and exploitative. Was the decision by Mark Boal, the season’s executive producer, who was originally interviewing Bergdahl so he could make a movie, to tape-record a low-ranking soldier — a traumatized torture victim facing potential criminal prosecution — for research purposes unethical? Probably not on its own, though it seems exploitative and done under false pretenses to me. It crossed into really gross territory when Boal couldn’t secure financing for his film and made the decision to partner with a hot-property hipster podcast to gin up some buzz for the project.

Boal and the “Serial” executive producer Sarah Koenig used the most salacious and self-incriminating clips of Bergdahl from the 25 hours of the “background research” audio, and timed the release of the first episode for the week before Abrams made his decision. It’s almost twee to talk about whether or not that was ethical; it was a calculated decision on their part, and I don’t believe ethics came into it. Expediency did. The last thing I want to do is make it sound as if I think Boal or Koenig had any ethics or values to begin with.

The book examines the American government’s hostage-negotiation policies, and it ends with some reforms that created an interagency hostage-recovery unit under the Obama administration in June 2015. Why did it take so long for these reforms to happen, and are they enough?

This isn’t a bug in American policy, it’s a feature we pretend doesn’t exist. It took a case like Bergdahl’s — in which you have an American soldier as the pawn — for people to sit up and notice that the system was broken. For almost five years, Bergdahl, normally under the jurisdiction of the American military, was held in Pakistan, an ostensibly allied country, where only the C.I.A. was allowed to operate, and they had bigger fish to fry than Bergdahl. The F.B.I. was claiming that because it was a kidnapping, it was their case, but they lacked the resources to resolve it. The State Department saw it as a way to open wider negotiations and somehow regain relevance in a conflict they had been largely iced out of. Only when Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, who had been one of the first Green Berets into Afghanistan, decided to force the issue — a moment of great integrity at great personal sacrifice — were politicians forced to sit up and take notice and make changes. Is it enough? Probably not. Sweeping policy changes will never be enough for Americans with loved ones still in captivity overseas, and there are plenty of those still.

What will be lasting impact of the Bergdahl case on the military?

I hate to say it, but most likely very little. There are some legal precedents that were set, and it had its ripples on the war; one that is never talked about is how Bergdahl passed along actionable intelligence and lessons learned from captivity to the appropriate military and intelligence authorities. That had a lasting impact, the kind that can be measured in drone-strike dates and casualties on a timeline: A lot of the Haqqani network’s leadership was killed by C.I.A. drones following Bergdahl’s repatriation. But how do we expect the military to learn from this, if we have trouble doing it as individuals and as a society? Acknowledging that someone like Bergdahl, whom the American public once loudly proclaimed a traitor and tried to further imprison, did more than his fair share to dismantle the terror network that held him captive in an allied country is a really uncomfortable thing to do if you’re wedded to a narrative about the war, so for the military it is better just to sweep it all under the rug post-court-martial and forget about it.


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