Today’s “Morning Joe” provided vigorous oversight of Washington decision-making; it also provided vigorous oversight of parental decision-making. Name partner Joe Scarborough used a discussion of the Bowe Bergdahl controversy to rip into the parenting of his father, Bob Bergdahl, the guy whom Bill O’Reilly ripped for growing a beard and learning Pashto and the like. Pere Bergdahl also invited criticism for a now-deleted recent tweet to a Taliban spokesman.
The treatment of Bob Bergdahl got a little more dire on “Morning Joe.” The criticism centered on revelations in a 2012 story by the late Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone. In a carefully laid-out passage, Hastings reported that around May-June of 2009, Bowe Bergdahl was becoming disenchanted with the Army and his posting in Afghanistan. He sent an e-mail to his parents listing all the problems.
In return, Bob Bergdahl sent a message with this in the subject line: “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!” Hastings described the rest of the e-mail:
“Dear Bowe,” he wrote. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.” He signed it simply “dad.”
That e-mail launched Scarborough into judgmental fury. The host noted how President Obama walked arm-in-arm with Bob Bergdahl at the White House. “Barack Obama has his arm around a man who’s reaching out to pro-Taliban forces, talking about killing Americans….” Scarborough ripped.
At which point, colleague Chuck Todd burst into the debate, “Joe, don’t criticize the parents.”
After some back and forth, Scarborough thundered: “I am a father. Any good father would not tell their son to follow their conscience and leave men and women on the line.”
“So he’s a bad father?” asked Todd in a tone of voice that betrayed astonishment at the discussion’s drift.
“Yes! Yes, he is,” responded Scarborough, who insisted that if his own son had requested his advice in a similar situation, he would have counseled him to stay where he was.
Co-host Mika Brzezinski jumped in: “As a father, you must know that it is impossible to judge another father in his time of need.”
Scarborough insisted on the right to judge. On that larger point, he has a point. Whether we admit it or not, we judge parents — other parents, that is — whenever we go to the mall, drop off the kids at school or attend a Little League game. When parenting decisions become part of a national issue such as the Bergdahl release, yeah, voicing opinions about them isn’t just inevitable, it’s okay.
The problem here isn’t the fact of Scarborough’s judgment, it’s the substance of it. A close read of that Hastings story reveals that the younger Bergdahl alerted his father to a number of problems: His leaders were terrible and the good ones had been moved to other assignments; the U.S. war was being prosecuted by a “conceited” country; he said he’d witnessed an Afghan child getting run over by an armored fighting vehicle.
The most critical part of the e-mail, at least for the purposes of the Scarborough-Todd clash, relates to soldiers bailing on the Army. Writes Bowe Bergdahl: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.” There’s no suggestion here that the way to “get out” is by going AWOL.
And the conclusion of the soldier’s e-mail went like this, in Hastings’s telling:
“I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.” Then he signed off with a final message to his mother and father. “There are a few more boxes coming to you guys,” he said, referring to his uniform and books, which he had already packed up and shipped off. “Feel free to open them, and use them.”
Those words, wrote Hastings, have the sound of a “suicide note.” A critical observation there, because the Rolling Stone article doesn’t leave the impression that Bob Bergdahl had a good idea that his son was contemplating abandoning his post and exposing himself to the perils of the Afghan countryside. The prevailing impression, instead, is just that the younger Bergdahl has had it with the Army. It’s hard to imagine any dad, even a bad one, writing an e-mail that could be construed by his son as encouragement to desert.
Matthew Farwell, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, provided reporting for the Hastings story. Asked by the Erik Wemple Blog whether Bob Bergdahl had any notion that his son was contemplating going AWOL at the time of those e-mails, Farwell responded via e-mail, “I don’t think so, you’d have ask him though.”
It’s a pivotal question, because Joe Scarborough shouldn’t be judging Bob Bergdahl for something he didn’t do.