No accounting has been demanded for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The architects of those disasters have shuffled off-stage now to their pensions and honorarias; some occasionally return to the public forum as learned commentators, as if their lethal stupidities of a decade ago now qualify them as experts on the bad choices to come.
Meanwhile the real leaders—Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld—are hanging back, presumably hoping the next wave of revisionism will restore to them the reputations for wisdom and courage they imagine they deserve. Hey, why not? Their victims are either dead or ignored. Even Nixon was remembered for statesmanship by the time he died.
In this country, we don’t have truth and reconciliation commissions, which elsewhere invite the victims of social calamities to talk publicly, and which try to restore dignity to those who suffered and to lay the seeds for futures in which such debacles won’t recur.
Instead, the engrained U.S. response to catastrophes—such as laying waste to other lands without cause—is to change the channel. In Scarlett O’Hara’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day.” Or as Kinky Friedman put it, “Let Saigons be bygones.”
When the urge for retrospection arises, chances are it won’t be to demand accountability. It’ll be to seek scapegoats. Hence the Bowe Bergdahl affair, an unfolding chapter in how the longest war in U.S. history is being imagined.
Bergdahl was the only U.S. prisoner of war left in Afghanistan. He was freed last month after being held by the Taliban under often harrowing conditions for almost five years. When he was captured he was a 23-year-old private first class (he’s only a sergeant now because he was promoted while in Taliban hands.) Actually, he was a home-schooled grunt from Idaho who had a longing for adventure, a flair for wordplay, and a loathing for the miseries of war.
The initial jubilance surrounding his release quickly subsided. The first buzz-killer was the exchange that freed him, in which five ex-Taliban officials were released from Guantanamo. Obama critics condemned them immediately as “some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror,” or, as Sen. John McCain declared, “the five biggest murderers in world history,” killers with U.S. blood on their hands.
That’s quite a stretch. Actually three of the five had been in U.S. hands since November 2001 and the other two since 2002, so any contact with U.S. soldiers apart from those guarding them was impossible. True, they figured in the tyrannical pre-9/11 Afghan regime, but had been locked up for the past 12-13 years, since well before the invasion that brought the likes of Bowe Bergdahl to their country.
Then there were complaints that the White House violated a legal requirement to gain congressional approval for any Guantanamo releases. Administration officials replied that they had their shot to get Bergdahl back and they took it.
But what has generated the greatest dismay is the idea that he was captured in the first place only after he walked away from his comrades—that he was tainted goods, his father a covert Taliban sympathizer (the elder Bergdahl had grown a long beard and was attempting to learn Pashto), the prisoner himself a deserter whose loyalties were uncertain.
To its credit, the administration has said his motives don’t matter. “Frankly, we don’t give a sh– why he left,” one White House official said in 2012. “He’s an American soldier. We want to bring him home.”
Clearly, he wanted out. In a richly detailed profile that the late Michael Hastings wrote for Rolling Stone two years ago, Bergdahl’s disgust with the war was apparent. A collection of writings from the year before he left his post in 2009, which Bergdahl shipped to a friend, show a brooding discontent and a yearning for “the artist’s painted world, hiding from the fields of blood and screams, hidden from the monster within himself.”
What’s astonishing to me, as a child of the ‘60s, is how isolated and forlorn seem his voice and the other voices of dissent from the Millennial generation, the young people who heeded the call after 9/11 and were terribly misused. Whether it’s Bowe Bergdahl, Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, these 20-somethings stepped up, and when they were appalled by what they were told to do, had nobody who understood their pain and to whom they could appeal.
That’s because there was no organized dissent to the panicky, lockstep rush to war, no dissident movement that shared their values and their dismay over the cause in which they’d enlisted, and which demanded to know why defending this country’s interests required so much destruction and death. Without a broader oppositional movement, these individuals have been pathologized as head-cases, branded as traitors, or both.
Bowe Berghdahl, it seems clear, went through hell after abandoning a war that–for all our supposedly information-rich media saturation—little of the public knows much about at all. He walked away from a war the rest of us had abandoned years before.