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Bowe Bergdahl’s Story Was Never Just About One Soldier’s Desertion

On June 30, 2009, early in the Obama administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl deserted his station at a remote outpost in Paktika province. He was seized by the Taliban the same day and whisked to Pakistan within a week of his capture. Bergdahl would spend five years in North Waziristan as a prisoner of the Haqqani Network, a group with intimate ties to the Taliban. He would waste away those years alone in dark rooms. Sometimes the guards would switch it up and leave him under stark electrical lighting for nights on end. He was provided with little food, water, or medical care, and he was made to eat with his hands off the same mud floor he slept on. When he wasn’t being tormented by dysentery, he was surviving a myriad of more straightforward tortures like beatings or methodical stabbings in the chest with a razor blade.

Bergdahl’s handoff to US special operations forces on May 31, 2014, was part of an exchange involving the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay. The exchange was intended to bring the United States and the Taliban one step closer to a peaceful resolution, but the murkiness surrounding Bergdahl’s desertion furnished Republicans with an ideal opportunity to depict Barack Obama and the Democrats as appeasers and apologists for treason at the same time—a tactic only accelerated by Donald Trump during and after his presidential campaign.

It didn’t help that members of Bergdahl’s battalion, along with other service members, insisted that Americans were needlessly killed or maimed during the search for him. All this made the subsequent legal proceedings against Bergdahl an ideological lightning rod, up to and including his dishonorable discharge on November 3, 2017, when Trump declared in a tweet that the sentence was a “total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.” The president was appalled that the judge didn’t call for further prison time or (as Trump had hinted at countless rallies) the death penalty.

Although Bergdahl never garnered a base of support even a thousandth the size of his sea of detractors, he has maintained some degree of mass sympathy. This was in large part thanks to season two of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, which began to air about a year and a half after its subject’s homecoming. The series attempted to make a not-so-subtle case that Bergdahl’s explanation for his desertion was likely an honest if harebrained one. That is, he had planned an unauthorized movement from one base to another in the hopes of prompting a large-scale emergency response that would gain the attention of higher-ups. Once such attention was being paid, he would inform the senior brass of what he saw as the reckless shortcomings of his unit leadership.

Serial’s contribution no doubt signaled a refreshing counterpoint to the prevailing jingoism of the moment, but for all its virtues, it still left a fundamentally jingoistic premise intact. It was not just that Koenig gave the impression of agreeing with Republicans that the moral rubric by which Bergdahl should be judged was whether he was a traitor; it was also that she appeared to concur with them that the moral heft of the Bergdahl episode centers on Bergdahl himself rather than the political culture that produced and discarded him.

What makes Matt Farwell and Michael Ames’s American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan so welcome is its spurning of such a hoary framework of understanding. Other trite configurations, like the American captivity narrative, are also declined. As early as the 17th century, Americans have recounted their capture at the hands of indigenous enemies, often affirming rather than rejecting distinctions between white colonial civilization and nonwhite savagery. While the harrowing aspects of Bergdahl’s time in Pakistan are fleshed out, his imprisonment makes up a minor theme, and the book works to do the opposite of the captivity narrative. In its understated but poignant way, American Cipher paints a picture of the United States as a country that has forever been imprisoned by its imperialist impulse to expand.

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