Bowe Bergdahl and the conflicting stories and anger he evokes


Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in a vehicle guarded by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan before his release on Saturday. (Voice Of Jihad Web site via AP)

Let’s start with this about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the controversial U.S. soldier who was exchanged by the Obama administration for five Taliban operatives on Saturday: Everyone can’t be right.

That seems like a pretty obvious statement, but the conflicting accounts and speculation that have followed make it clear that this is a story in which millions of people are both deeply invested and deeply divided. It comes at the intersection of politics, human interest and the closing salvos of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that stretch back more than a decade and have cost nearly 7,000 U.S. lives and between $4 trillion and $6 trillion, according to outside studies.

Some insist that he is not only a deserter, but a straight-up defector to the Taliban. That’s because by many accounts, he walked off his own base in a violent region of Afghanistan in 2009. Doing so — unarmed and without backup from fellow soldiers — has led to questions about both his motives and his sanity at the time. Even Afghan villagers who reportedly saw Bergdahl the day he was captured told The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff that they warned him against heading toward Taliban strongholds, as he appeared to be.

“They tried to tell him not to go there, that it is dangerous. But he kept going over the mountain. The villagers tried to give him water and bread, but he didn’t take it,” Ibrahim Manikhel, the district’s intelligence chief, told The Post.

“We think he probably was high after smoking hashish,” Manikhel added. “Why would an American want to find the Taliban?”

Stories like that have circulated about Bergdahl for years. But they also frequently conflict with each other.

The Army Times, for example, reported Tuesday that Bergdahl may have left his base in Afghanistan at least once before he vanished, citing a source who had seen a copy of the Army’s preliminary investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance. That investigation, subsequently noted by the Associated Press and the New York Times, among others, said there was little doubt that Bergdahl left on his own the night he was kidnapped. That contradicts previous reports that suggest Bergdahl may have been attacked while in a latrine on base, or fallen behind on a patrol, as the soldier himself suggested in a video released by the Taliban one month after he disappeared.

Other media accounts have suggested that Bergdahl left a letter the night he disappeared saying he wanted to renounce his citizenship. That has inflamed opinion against him, especially among individuals already angry about the reports that he walked away from his base.

Nevertheless,  the Obama administration — namely, national security adviser Susan Rice — initially defended swapping five hardened Taliban personnel for Bergdahl by saying he had “served the United States with honor and distinction.”  That came years after the Army’s initial investigation, and infuriated many with ties to the military who had been following the case, noting the likelihood that his actions had led to the Army halting other operations for a search that put other American lives in danger. Some contend that six to eight soldiers died directly as a result, although that has been called into question, too.

All of this has led senior military officials — including Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who resigned as the top commander in Afghanistan after criticizing President Obama in a famous Rolling Stone article — to plead for people to hold back in pre-judging Bergdahl. Asked whether he would have gone through with the prisoner swap, McChrystal indicated he would — and then called for patience.

“We’re going to have to wait and talk to Sgt. Bergdahl now and get his side of the story,” he told Yahoo! News. “One of the great things about America is we should not judge until we know the facts. And after we know the facts, then we should make a mature judgment on how we should handle it.”

Brandon Friedman, an outspoken Army veteran, similarly called on Twitter for individuals to slow down in condemning Bergdahl in a series of messages Wednesday night. They went viral in part because of the way in which he did it — and because he’s a government official currently serving as the deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Here’s the full series of tweets:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then Friedman ramped up his rhetoric in a way that supported the call to hold back in judging Bergdahl:

 

 

 

 

The response was swift, suggesting that Friedman — a government official — wasn’t just pointing out that the American public doesn’t yet know Bergdahl’s background, but insinuating that there were “psychos” in it.

 

 

Friedman playing devil’s advocate in such a fashion certainly inflamed the debate. But it seems here like his overall sentiment — hold fire on Bergdahl for now — isn’t all that different than McChrystal’s.

UPDATE: June 5, 3:40 p.m.: Friedman just apologized for his comments in an article on Buzzfeed.

“While I just wanted to make the point that the public should wait before passing judgment, I unfortunately used my own poor judgment in choosing inappropriate language that many view as disparaging to U.S. service members,” he said. “That was certainly not my intent and I regret making the comments on my personal account in such a way. I apologize to those with whom I work in the Administration, at HUD, and, most importantly, to any service members who took offense.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe | June 5