Today, the Post published excerpts of Bowe Bergdahl’s journal, along with emails and other writings, giving us the most intimate, complex, and in many ways sad view we’ve yet had of the young man who had been held prisoner by the Taliban for five years.
What the journal ultimately shows suggests that as a partisan political issue, Bergdahl’s release is likely to fade before long. The right has gotten about as much as they can out of it, and now that we know how troubled Bergdahl was before he wandered off his base, they may just let it go.
The idea that Bergdahl wasn’t sufficiently deserving of rescue has been central to the conservative criticism of the deal to obtain his release. Even as they wildly exaggerate the danger of the five former Taliban we released (to hear Fox News tell it, you’d almost think the five not only planned and executed the September 11 attacks, they also have super-powers that will enable them to reduce our nation to ashes any day now), many on the right attacked Bergdahl and his family relentlessly, accusing him of being not just a deserter but an outright traitor. Some even mobilized a PR campaign to promote soldiers who would go in the media to criticize Bergdahl.
But his writings, which were shared with the Post by a close friend, tell a story that doesn’t fit into the kind of box that can be easily used for partisan purposes. Among other things, we now know that Bergdahl joined the Coast Guard in 2006 and was quickly discharged for psychological reasons, though he claimed to friends that he had faked mental illness in order to get released (a claim about which they were skeptical). But it’s Bergdahl’s own words that are the most revealing:
The 2006 discharge and a trove of Bergdahl’s writing — his handwritten journal along with essays, stories and e-mails provided to The Washington Post — paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
“I’m worried,” he wrote in one journal entry before he deployed. “The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I’m reverting. I’m getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness.”
A few pages later, he wrote: “I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside. I will not lose this passion of beauty.”
At another point, using his often unorthodox spelling, he wrote: “Trying to keep my self togeather. I’m so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it. Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over.”
At another point Bergdahl writes: “I want to change so much and all the time, but then my mind just locks down, as if there was some one else in my mind shutting the door in my face. . . . I want to pull my mind out and drop kick it into a deep gorge.” And then: “In a file dated a few days later, repetitions of the phrase ‘velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper’ cover nearly two pages.”
We shouldn’t be too quick to make a conclusive psychiatric diagnosis based on these words. But if you’re someone committed to painting Bergdahl as a traitor who didn’t deserve to be released — or at least, didn’t deserve to have much given up in exchange for him — what do you think when you see that? And let’s recall that until the deal for Bergdahl was actually made, many on the right were attacking the Obama administration for not getting him out sooner; for some, he’s never been anything more than a cudgel with which to beat the administration.
So maybe now they’ll decide that all the personal attacks on Bergdahl have outlived their usefulness. The administration’s opponents have every right to argue, if they choose, that those five Taliban are history’s most terrifying super-villains, and we shouldn’t have made the deal even to get back Audie Murphy. But now that we’re getting a fuller picture of what a troubled soul Bergdahl was, conservatives may decide that there isn’t much margin left in attacking him, lest they end up looking (for the umpteenth time) like they’ve overplayed their political hand and been blinded to everything, even human compassion, by their hatred of this president.