The horror that is America

by H.B. Koplowitz

“The horror that is America is disgusting.” Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl emailed those anguished words to his parents in June 2009, a day before he walked away from his military unit in Afghanistan and was taken prisoner by the Taliban. Bergdahl, who was promoted to sergeant while in captivity, was exchanged for five Taliban Guantanamo prisoners May 31, and the truth of his words is reflected in America’s horrid debate over whether its last prisoner of war is a hero or a traitor, and whether President Barack Obama acted appropriately to get him back. Just calling the prisoner swap controversial is disgusting, and shows how low partisan politics, the mainstream media and public discourse have sunk.

Bergdahl is neither a hero nor a traitor. He’s a casualty of war, deserving of respect, compassion and rehabilitation like any other veteran, especially one who was a caged and shackled prisoner of war for nearly five years. Instead, he and his family have been savaged in the media by craven politicians, thumb-sucking commentators and even his fellow soldiers, who have called him a coward, deserter, traitor and enemy collaborator, responsible for the deaths of some of those ordered to find him.

Much of what is known about Bergdahl and his family comes from an excellent 2012 article in Rolling Stone magazine by the late Michael Hastings, “America’s Last Prisoner of War.” Hastings describes an earnest young soldier traumatized by the horrors of war and a flawed military strategy. There is little doubt he left his post, but he may have been mentally unhinged, because it was crazy to try to cross a war zone alone and unarmed, although it was hardly cowardly. As his father urged him to do, he may also have been following his conscience, telling his parents: “These [Afghan] people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live…. We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks.”

Whether one agrees with those sentiments or not, Bergdahl had earned the right to his opinion, which happens to be shared by many who opposed the prolonged war in Afghanistan. Rather than fragging his unit or collaborating with the enemy, he chose a nonviolent way to express his civil disobedience that might be called honorable and even heroic, as well as insane. Whether or not he is guilty of desertion, his time served as a prisoner of the Taliban seems like more than adequate punishment.

Of course, Bergdahl and his family are merely collateral damage in the Republican Party’s nauseating campaign, amplified by credulous media across the political spectrum, to tarnish Obama by claiming the POW exchange was in any way improper. It is clear from Hastings’ 2012 article that the outlines of a prisoner swap as a “confidence-building measure” in larger negotiations with the Taliban to wind down the war in Afghanistan had been in place for years, and that many in Congress knew about and approved of them.

But instead of rallying to the president’s defense, some Democrats, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, have criticized Obama for not giving Congress 30-day notice that prisoners were being released from Guantanamo Bay, as required under a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress enacted specifically to obstruct Obama’s efforts to close Gitmo. During a classified briefing Wednesday, administration officials told senators that had the secret POW talks become public, Bergdahl might have been beheaded. In light of the vitriol that erupted after the exchange was revealed, there isn’t a scintilla of doubt that had Congress been informed, someone would have leaked the information, and someone in the media would have reported it.

Another Democrat who seems to have placed domestic politics above the return of a POW is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Former administration sources told CNN Clinton was skeptical of early plans to trade Taliban prisoners, and in her new book, “Hard Choices,” she writes, “I acknowledged, as I had many times before, that opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban would be hard to swallow for many Americans after so many years of war.”

Negotiating with terrorists, i.e., America’s adversaries, from Iran to North Korea, sets no precedent. Nor does a POW exchange. As for the claim that what Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina ludicrously dubbed the Taliban Dream Team will immediately start killing more Americans, it is just as likely they will choose to chill out with family and friends than play chicken with drones. Sooner or later they would have had to be released anyway, but by doing so now, Obama got something in return, including a bridge to further peace negotiations.

If there is a hero in this grotesque farce of a POW homecoming, it is Obama, who put the welfare of a single flawed American above his own political self-interests, and who, despite “bad optics,” invited Bergdahl’s mom and bearded, Pashtun-spouting dad to the White House to honor them for their sacrifices. The president has refused to apologize for the prisoner exchange, and he has nothing to apologize for. It is America that should be apologizing, especially the media, for the shabby way we are welcoming home a military veteran. Shame on us.

© H.B. Koplowitz 6/7/14

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