The Known Unknowns About Bowe Bergdahl

Scrutinizing Bergdahl’s last e-mail to his parents before he allegedly fled his unit, John Cassidy doesn’t see the right’s preferred story about Bergdahl holding up:

Does this e-mail prove that Bergdahl was a deserter or even, as some right-wing commentators are suggesting, a traitor who aided Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 1.10.34 PMand abetted the Taliban? No, it doesn’t. If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.

And that, for now, is about all we know. “As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.”

Also complicating the narrative is a military report from 2009 suggesting that Bergdahl was known to wander off:

It happened both in Afghanistan and while he was training in California. The report concludes that Bergdahl was likely wandering around off-base the night he disappeared in June 2009, says the Timeswhich spoke to people briefed on the 35-page document.

As for whether the disappearance was due to carelessness resulting in capture or willful desertion, the report doesn’t say. It does, however, lend credence to the former theory, criticizing lax security and poor discipline among Bergdahl’s unit that would allow his tendencies to wander to go unchecked. Perhaps most significantly, the report makes no mention of the letter Bergdahl reportedly left in his tent announcing his desertion. Nor does it corroborate claims from Bergdahl’s former squadmates that he was making radio calls trying to get in touch with the Taliban.

Tuccille sympathizes with Bergdahl, arguing that it should have been easier for him to leave the Army when he became disillusioned with the mission in Afghanistan:

American troops have engaged in continuous war in Afghanistan since 2001, so nobody can claim that they don’t know that military service might require actual military service. Then again, military recruiters focus on the young not just because they’re physically fit, but also because they have little perspective on what they’re getting themselves into. More than a few studies have found that recruiters tend to be a bit shaky on the details and potential consequences of enlisting—a choice that, at least potentially, locks enlistees into a situation with high stakes.

Even in the age of the Internet and non-stop news cycles, concepts like combat, injury, and death can be abstract concepts for an 18-year-old. So if Bowe Bergdahl decided that the bill of goods he was sold didn’t live up to the advertising—especially if he began to have moral qualms about his duties—I’m pretty sympathetic.