Friday, June 6, 2014

Beyond Bergdahl Mess, a Country Divided


Five years ago, when the Taliban announced they were holding American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, would you have imagined the scenario that has been playing out this week after his release?

The vitriol?  The seemingly blind allegiance?  The unwillingness to face uncomfortable reality?  And that conservatives and liberals would be all over the map in their responses?

Frankly, who among us remembered Bowe Bergdahl during his long odyssey as a prisoner of war?  His parents did, obviously, through a Twitter account and advocacy trips to Washington, DC.  There was a Rolling Stones article breathlessly describing him as a "crucial pawn" to ending the war in Afghanistan.  But other than that, Bowe Bergdahl was hardly a household name.

It is now.

And like just about everything that happens within our national consciousness anymore, the Bowe Bergdahl narrative has instantly divided our increasingly acrimonious citizenry.

There are reports that Bergdahl is a deserter at worst, or at least a defiant idealist who chaffed at military duty.  It is believed that at least six soldiers died in the confused search for him.  There are insinuations in his father's Twitter posts of a dissatisfaction with America's economic and political ideals.  There's his father's Islamic greeting invoking Allah at the Rose Garden press conference, the President's brazen unilateralism in authorizing the prisoner swap, and the prisoner swap itself, involving Taliban operatives being held at searingly controversial Guantanamo Bay.  There's the President's solemn claim that we do not forget to bring home all of our soldiers, even as an estimated 1,600 American veterans of the Vietnam war remain unaccounted for.

Yesterday in the New York Times, that newspaper's idea of a conservative editorialist, David Brooks, penned a poignant piece praising President Obama for having the courage to reward Bergdahl's status as an American soldier by negotiating for his release. 

"It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl had deserted his post or not," asserts Brooks.  "It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army... It doesn’t matter either that the United States government ended up dealing with terrorists."

It doesn't matter?  Seriously?

Brooks joins a small group of liberals who argue that technically, the Taliban isn't a terrorist organization, which is enough to make one wonder why we're scared of it, then.  Why are we in Afghanistan?  Why was the Taliban claiming to hold an American against his will, if they don't consider themselves an enemy of America?  And if we don't consider them an enemy?  Does England contact the State Department and offer to negotiate a trade for American soldiers they're holding?

And then there's the Presbyterian minister who has chided evangelicals for "judging" the Bergdahl family, saying that to hold people responsible for the things they say in a press conference at the White House is unfair.

So, what is fair?  What does matter anymore?  Does a soldier's oath mean nothing?  Brooks says that we live in a "dirty" world, and that's true enough.  But might a reason it's dirty be due in part to the need a lot of people have to blur the lines between what's appropriate and what isn't?  Isn't it appropriate for evangelicals to get upset when a self-avowed Presbyterian thanks Allah for the release of his son?  Why is it wrong for solders - who adamantly insist that a peer walked off of his post - to speak up and say what they saw?  Why is it wrong for California's liberal senator, Dianne Feinstein, to complain that the President abrogated his duty to follow procedures he himself had recently signed into law?

How bizarre to witness the mish-mash of conservatives and liberals, who are usually on opposite sides of most issues, being of the same mind when it comes to the Bergdahl case!  And how troubling the excuses being made by the President's supporters for why they think the rest of us should shut up.

Can't we agree on anything anymore?  Brooks gushes platitudes about "building national solidarity," but he himself seems bent on trying to magnify whatever scintilla of good the Bergdahl release may contain, while absurdly patronizing his fellow citizens who see so much wrong with how it was perpetrated.

"It’s not about one person," Brooks incongruously writes, regarding the President's interest in the larger fabric of the common good.  "it’s about the principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all, which is the basis of citizenship."

Um, yeah:  the Bergdahl fiasco should really be unifying this country.

If anything, however, it has driven us further apart as Americans.  It wasn't just Bowe's father, whose personal overtures to the Taliban were mostly unknown to us until his son was released.  And it wasn't just how Bowe got himself captured in the first place, or even the way the President got him freed.  What's most discouraging here is the way some people - particularly those supporting the President's actions - are intolerant of critical voices.

Granted, the manner and tone with which some people ask questions can be confrontational and ugly, but shouldn't we be able to have a dialog over this with a certain set standards, and non-negotiables?  Like not negotiating with terrorists?  That's the crux of this issue; the big flashpoint here that would remain, even if everything else had a palpable resolution. 

From all we've heard about Bowe Bergdahl's disillusionment about the American military's hubris in Afghanistan, isn't it ironic that Americans who approve of the President's actions in his case are mimicking the mantra that apparently so offended him:  the ends justify the means.


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