In Bergdahl, a projection of our views on America's long and inconclusive wars (+video)

A look behind the attacks and counterattacks on a US soldier who spent five years in Taliban captivity.

By , Staff writer

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    Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
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Most of what has been written and said about Bowe Bergdahl isn't really about Bowe Bergdahl. Instead much of it is a projection of national angst about long wars that haven't delivered on their promises upon a young man who endured a five year ordeal in Taliban captivity.

The anti-war Code Pink has finally found a soldier it loves – its press releases emphasize Bergdahl's alleged distaste for the war effort. Fox News can't stand him, repeatedly hitting the rage button with spurious claims he converted to Islam while in captivity; considered himself a mujahid ("holy warrior); and musing that he's perhaps a deserter who deserves the death penalty.

The circus of talking heads are attacking Bergdahl and his family, rambling about Stockholm Syndrome, speculating about what's going on inside his head, and seeing as suspicious Bergdahl's interest in learning Afghan languages and expressions of concern to platoon-mates about the Afghan people. For good measure, there were even strident demands that his father shave the long beard he grew in solidarity with his son (which he has since shaved) because it made him look like a Muslim.

Recommended: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.

Then there is the vast contempt that many Americans seem to feel for their commander-in-chief. Senator John McCain, so desperate to present President Obama as a feckless leader, claimed Sunday that the five Taliban members released in exchange for Bergdahl were "responsible for 9/11" despite no evidence that they were, and reams of evidence that they weren't.

What's the truth? Bergdahl continues to be debriefed and receive medical and psychological care at a US base in Germany. Some of the men who served with him have branded him as a deserter; others describe him as a quirky but gung-ho soldier eager to be in the thick of the fight. Bergdahl had in the past slipped away from his unit, only to return, something that is more common in war zones than most people realize. 

Since I don't have access to Bergdahl, or his mind, I'm in the camp that we simply don't know what he was thinking when he walked off his post in Afghanistan. A full military investigation should make this clear in time.

But the attacks on Bergdahl, and the anti-war left's embrace of him as a stand-in for its agenda, does remind me of something with which I am intimately acquainted: The kidnapping of former Monitor reporter Jill Carroll in Iraq in 2006. Ms. Carroll was held for 3 months by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group of insurgents. During her captivity, and in its immediate aftermath, she was viciously attacked by American right-wingers for what they imagined was contained in her head.

While not a soldier, and having suffered a far-shorter ordeal, the false attacks on her are similar in many ways to the ones we're hearing about Bergdahl. There was something suspicious that Carroll was intent on improving her Arabic and that she appeared to have a high degree of sympathy for Iraq's people. Forced to wear a headscarf while in captivity, there were lies that she'd converted, that she refused to take the head covering off when free, and that she had deliberately gotten herself kidnapped to aid the Iraqi insurgency against the US and its allies (yes, that same claim has been made about Bergdahl).

Why? I think for much the same way that the fury of attacks on Bergdahl are far outpacing any facts we may have in hand. Carroll was captured at a time when the war in Iraq was going terribly awry and it was becoming clear that America wasn't going to meet its stated goals for the war. It's far easier to define enemies within your own camp, however imaginary, than to wrestle with the simple fact that there are limits to what US power can achieve.

In the case of Iraq, there was also deep anger among many Americans at the negative reporting that most of the world's press, me included, were delivering on the war there. Carroll was a convenient stand-in -– never mind that she was popular and respected by almost every US soldier or Marine who knew her in Iraq. 

She lived in fear of imminent death for months and had no control over her own life. She witnessed a dear friend and colleague murdered by her captors at the time of her abduction. One can only imagine how Bergdahl feels after five years, in which it appears his treatment was far worse than hers, involving long stretches of solitary confinement and other forms of torture.

Whatever picture ultimately emerges of Bergdahl, one thing can be safely said: His actions and beliefs have had no effect on the course of the war in Afghanistan. The wisdom or folly of America's longest war cannot be judged through the lens of this soldier, as tempting and easy as it is to do so.

If you want answers, and knowledge, look elsewhere.

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