The other day I finished listening to the second season of the podcast Serial about Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years. Bowe was brought back to the US in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Abu Ghraib. You can watch the video of his pick up here.
Because he had been in mostly dark captivity for so long, Bergdahl was at first brought to a hotel in Germany, where he found the soft bed too uncomfortable, preferring to sleep in the enclosed, harder space of the bathroom. As those caring for him slowly and it sounds like, very gently, worked to acclimate him and understand what had ensued, a perplexing story emerged.
A young man who had wanted to be in the military, Bowe first tried for the Coast Guard, but was discharged after having something between an anxiety attack and a breakdown during basic training. After finding himself as part of a counter-insurgency team in Paktika Province, he was on one hand frustrated by the domestic nature of the work his platoon was doing – building relationships with the locals by helping them out – on the other hand freaked out after a mission that left his platoon in severe discomfort and risk of death, perhaps unnecessarily. His reasons for voluntarily leaving his platoon were without doubt misguided. He soon found himself a captive of the Taliban, and remained so for five years, most of it spent in solitude and discomfort. Somehow he survived.
Through an unfortunate chain of events exacerbated by politicians and a headline-grabbing media, our country quickly became polarized about whether Bowe was a prisoner or a war criminal. I found myself trying to figure the same thing out as I listened to an impartial Sarah Koenig interviewing people who represented both arguments. In the end, there were two people who said things that made the most sense to me.
The first was John Thurman, who had been in Bowe’s platoon and at first blamed Bowe for the deaths of some of their fellow solders. We are “trying to make sense of something that makes no sense about who is to blame. You just want to blame something or somebody…”
The second, retired Lieutenant Colonel Paul Edgar, had led the search for Bergdahl. “Bowe is….normal in war. As a society we treat Bowe as some aberration but really his case is simply a very normal part of war. We signed up for Afghanistan, as a country….we signed up for all the things we tend to forget that attend war. Mistakes, accidents, people dying for avoidable or even ridiculous reasons, an army recruiting system that lowers its standards when it needs more bodies, twenty-something year olds that quickly become disillusioned, that do something rash, or criminal, it’s all unfortunately normal. There’s a level of responsibility here, whether it’s Bowe and his particulars or the baggage of war that goes along with every single one, that we signed up for as a society and to take all of that and pin it politically or otherwise on this 20 year old is in my opinion, very very wrong.”
I know how often I quickly conclude who or what is to blame for an unfortunate occurrence, putting a name on the enemy. But listening to this podcast and this retired Lieutenant Colonel reminds me that there are rarely easy, clear answers, particularly to large tragedies such as this. I will spend some time and energy walking away from black and white, and towards grey.