bowe bergdahl

Bowe Bergdahl

The Swiftboating of An American Prisoner of War

In 2004, Secretary of State John Kerry was a candidate for President of the United States. A group calling themselves Swift Vets and POWs for Truth waged a now discredited vicious campaign against then candidate Kerry to attack his military and service record in Viet Nam. The group claimed John Kerry inflated his role in the military and was a traitor to his country for his anti-war activities upon returning home. These were particularly personal attacks upon his character and after Kerry lost the presidency, it turns out none of those things for which he was accused were true. In spite of the fact that the group has been resoundingly discredited for their outright lies, the falsehoods they told remain deep in the psyche of the rabid Right Wingnuts as ‘fact’. To wit; the term ‘swiftboating’ has come to mean an untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign.

And that’s precisely what’s happening to Bowe Bergdahl, the last American POW to be rescued from Afghanistan after 5 long years in captivity – the Swiftboating of Bowe Bergdahl has begun in earnest.

Researching this story, I relied on the news stories from the time he was taken, not on new accounts of the time he was taken, five years after the fact. Perhaps the best and most reliable account came from the late Michael Hastings in a piece that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. Hastings managed to outline the background and history of Bergdahl’s service and a reasonable motive for him leaving the base. It may have had nothing to do with being a deserter or a traitor. It may have had everything to do with a young man arriving in Afghanistan to find a military in complete disarray, a unit with low morale and no discipline, and a non-existent leadership structure – and Bergdahl was a young man who relied on structure. He took his military service seriously and his missions were undertaken with intensity. He was considered ‘strange’ by his fellow service members because he didn’t smoke or drink beer with them and would spend time in his bunk studying maps of the countryside and listening to tapes trying to learn the local dialects. Not so strange when you consider he was a serious man posted there in an ‘outreach’ unit to befriend the locals and get them on the side of the Americans. Now that Bergdahl is U.S. custody due to negotiations by the U.S. State Department and President Obama, a public relations firm has been hired to ‘spin’ Bergdahl’s ordeal in a move to politicize the end of the war and create another non-scandal scandal for President Obama. We’ll get to the shameless hypocrisy of that shortly.

To give you some background, there was a neglected neighborhood boy who practically lived with me for a good deal of his youth. I remember signing him up for peewee football league and paying his fees. I remember buying his school clothes. I remember helping him pick out a tux for prom. And then I remember the day I was sitting at work and he walked into my office wearing Army fatigues. He was 18 years old and I wasn’t his mother, but my heart sank. He held both of my cheeks in his hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll be okay.” Six months later he was spending his first night in Iraq speaking to me on Skype.  This was a kid I’d known since he was 8. I saw fear in his face and heard fear in his voice. I’ll never forget him saying, “I can hear the bombs going off in the distance, Mama. I’m scared. I’m really scared.” There were reassurances and comforting words belaying my own fears and when the conversation was over, there were a lot of tears he never heard. And when I say this was a kid I’d known since he was 8, I mean he was an inexperienced-don’t-know-shit-about-life young man, but a man old enough to serve his country. It’s the Mama in me referring to him as a kid. He was no kid. He was not yet a mature adult. This is a fair depiction of a lot of young Americans sent to fight a war over mythical WMDs in two countries who had nothing to do with 9/11. Many of those young soldiers became quickly disillusioned with the realities of war, as was the case with Bowe Bergdahl. Something easily verified in the content of his emails home.

Of course, Bergdahl doesn’t have the luxury of hiring a P.R. firm while still in military custody being debriefed on his 5 years in captivity. This of course has provided ample opportunity for the GOP to set up their campaign describing him as an A.W.O.L. deserter, an outcast and a traitor. Not smoking and drinking with the gang is now considered a vice and studying the local culture, suspicious. His former platoon mates have been recruited to go on television and describe him in the least flattering terms possible. Their airfare was comped and it is unknown if they received other compensations from this public relations firm and I’m absolutely not saying they were. What I’m suggesting is that a soldier doesn’t have to leave the battlefield to suffer from PTSD and it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to think that may have played a part in his leaving. We know he visited another military base. We know he went to a local establishment and allegedly got drunk. We know he and several Afghanis were abducted, according to military intelligence.

But don’t we owe it to the military and to Bowe Bergdahl themselves to tell us what happened that night? And after that night?

Our dear brothers and sisters in journalism over

parents of bowe

The parents of Bowe Bergdahl

at Fox News took to the airwaves to suggest Bowe Bergdahl’s father should cut his hair and shave – because he looks like a terrorist. Because they believe they know what terrorists look like. Of course, what a terrorist looks like depends on whom you ask. If you ask people in Isla Vista, California,  they’ll tell you a terrorist looks like Elliott Rogers. If you ask anyone who confronts the Open Carry people about their sanity and public safety, they’ll tell you a terrorist looks like a redneck with a long gun strapped to his back in a restaurant. Perhaps Fox News could stop being the self-appointed arbiter of who does or does not look like a terrorist. Mr. Bergdahl immersed himself in the culture and language of his son’s captors, knowing his every word would be picked up over the internet. Had it been my kid, I’d wear a burqua and falsely pledge allegiance to Allah, Mohammad or whomever else I thought they wanted me to.

And let’s address the ‘Obama negotiated with terrorists’ issue. Let’s address the falsehood that America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. From our friends at Media Matters:

PolitiFact: Experts Say “America Actually Has A Detailed History Of Negotiating With Terrorists.” According to PolitiFact, the U.S. “has a long history of negotiating prisoner trades in times of war.” Former State Department official Mitchell Reiss noted the U.S.’s history of negotiating with terrorists that dates back to the Founding Fathers:  “There’s little that’s actually new here,” said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It may be new to certain individuals. Whether it’s new or not is not as important as whether it’s sound policy and promotes national security. That’s the ground where there’s a more legitimate debate.”In his book, Negotiating with Evil, Reiss wrote that America actually has a detailed history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity.

After the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson apologized for spying as part of negotiations to secure the release of 83 American prisoners.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.

In perhaps the most famous swap, after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

President Bill Clinton’s administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

Reiss also noted that President George W. Bush engaged in negotiations with Iran and North Korea even after decreeing them part of the “Axis of Evil.” [PolitiFact, 6/1/14]

The scorching hypocrisy of the Right Wing pundits can be felt across the globe. We don’t have to like these facts, but rewriting history because of the hatred toward President Obama doesn’t fly. The Right will continue to be in full Hair On Fire Mode for matters of convenience, never based on fact and you can bet responsibility for the next American taken anywhere in the world will be blamed on President Obama, despite the fact our country has a long history of negotiating with terrorists. And let’s not forget the Geneva Convention. Section 11, Article 118 states all prisoners must be released and repatriated at the cessation of war. Given that the war will be officially over in a matter of months, it was merely a matter of a short time before they would have to be released anyway. The war is effectively over, so suck it up, Buttercup.

If we’re going to have a moral debate on whether or not we ever leave a soldier behind, by all means, let’s have it now and let’s have it long and loud. Let’s assure anyone signing the contract to serve our country that if they’re taken prisoner, according to Fox News, you should be tried in the court of public opinion first and if you’re not deemed worthy of saving, prepare to spend the last day of your life in the hands of your captors as a prisoner of war. Let’s see how many people are willing to sign on the dotted line given that little salvo the next time this country is lied to about weapons of mass destruction being in a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks.

I am in no position to know what happened with this soldier and frankly, neither is anyone else. It’s time for the disgusting speculation on the part of the press to end immediately too. Michael Hastings was a real journalist who did his job. The beltway media and cable news are merely parroting press releases delivered from the GOP public relations firm.

This is America. We do not under any circumstances leave a soldier behind on the battlefield. If Bowe Bergdahl did something wrong, it’s up to a military tribunal to determine the facts and adjudicate the case. Not me. Not you. Certainly not Fox News.

We’re Americans. It’s time to start acting like it.


Carol Baker is a political writer and a frequent contributor to Here Women Talk.

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