Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American held captive for the most time by the Taliban, is now facing the prospect of life in prison. He was captured after deliberately leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009; it took a controversial prisoner swap to finally bring him home. Once he was back in the U.S., a group of independent fact checkers recommended to the Army that Bergdahl not face court-martial but instead be subject to some sort of mitigated military justice process in which he would face much lighter sentencing. Prison time seemed highly unlikely. Then on Dec. 14, a general interceded and overrode that recommendation.
This means that a man who was once America’s most revered contemporary POW faces the possibility of being locked up again, for the rest of his life. His military experience is thus marked by long-term detention at opposite ends of the earth (not to mention poles of geopolitical ideology). Prison is the start and endpoint of Bergdahl’s metamorphosis from right-wing hero to persona non grata; analyzing how this transformation occurred can teach us a lot about the role that scapegoats play in American politics.
In 2010 the American right upheld Bergdahl as more than an average American hero. Presenting him in this way served a political purpose: He became a powerful symbol of President Barack Obama’s perceived lack of concern for the troops. Right-wing blogs and military blogs, accusing Obama of dragging his feet on negotiating Bowe’s release, claimed that Bergdahl was being “abandoned from the start by those in control within our government.” Songwriter Charlie Daniels, of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame, tweeted to Obama that bringing Bergdahl home was “more important than rescuing [General Motors].” PJ Media promoted an online petition demanding that Obama free Bergdahl “by any means necessary,” including force and a prisoner swap with the Taliban. The criticisms weren’t always direct, but their implications were clear: Obama so little cares about the troops that he’s allowing an American soldier to languish with the Taliban.
National politicians eventually caught a whiff of this sentiment and took it as a call to action. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., demanded that the government “make every effort” to bring Bowe back. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., released a statement saying, “We also must continue to keep Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by the Taliban for nearly five years, in our thoughts and prayers — and I renew my call on the Defense Department to redouble its efforts to find Sgt. Bergdahl and return him safely to his family.” Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., said on CNN that he would “be inclined to support” a prisoner swap to get Bergdahl back. There seemed to be something of a consensus on that side of the aisle that Bergdahl had to be rescued.
Even as late as 2014, conservatives read what they wanted into Bergdahl’s disappearance. Never mind that nearly all the facts surrounding his abduction— that he left base willingly, that fellow troops devoted resources to searching for him and that people in his unit weren’t exactly pleased with his behavior — were matters of record long before his return. Bergdahl was, by this point, not a soldier but a cipher, which meant that facts were conveniently ignored in order for him to be cast in the role of living, breathing rebuke of Obama’s spinelessness. This explains how he could be recast as a pariah seemingly overnight when the Obama administration finally agreed to a prisoner swap in 2014 to bring Bergdahl home. Before he so much as set foot again in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, his homecoming parade had to be canceled because of the backlash.
Matt Binder, a former producer at Majority FM, curated this turnaround on Twitter. Conservative tweets transform from insistent all-caps “NO MAN LEFT BEHIND” to the sedate but disappointed “Obama had to lay out the red carpet for the terrorists.” One tweeter shifts from pronouncing Bergdahl a “GREAT AMERICAN” to calling for his execution. It almost became a game to find conservatives online who seamlessly transitioned from vehement demands for Bergdahl’s release to equally passionate denunciations of him. And the hypocrisy wasn’t limited to the keyboard commandos. In 2013 former Army Col. and U.S. Rep. Allen West was calling Bergdahl “abandoned” by Obama on his blog. In 2015, West complained that Bergdahl’s being spared jail time “stinks.” Other Republican politicians joined in the melee. Ayotte called the conditions of Bergdahl’s release a “threat to national security.” Inhofe took to Fox News to criticize Obama for freeing “people who killed Americans,” and McCain expressed dismay over the deal.
The arguments Republicans use to criticize Bergdahl and the conditions of his release — that he was a deserter, that his release compromised national security, that he forced Obama to be soft on the enemy — don’t hold up. If the Taliban had captured Bergdahl with his unit while they were on patrol, he would have been a hero. To walk off base, unarmed, into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily make him a traitor but rather a prime candidate for psychiatric evaluation. And the high-profile Taliban prisoners traded for Bergdahl were going to be released soon anyway, so there was no tit for tat.
What’s more, the United States is committed to bringing Americans service members back home as a matter of course. “How many Taliban officers is one American life worth?” isn’t the kind of arithmetic that we do, and the Bergdahl deal detractors know this. To cast a colder eye at their odd flip-flopping reveals only a single constant in their discourse: taking cheap shots at Obama. All Bergdahl ever was for them, whether they were calling him a hero or trash, was a pick to jab Obama.
The recently deceased French literary and social theorist René Girard, who wrote a book on scapegoating, offers a helpful frame for understanding Bergdahl’s situation. Girard writes that the purpose of a scapegoat is to provide a way for the community to forget its moral shortcomings and find a common cause in eliminating the person they almost arbitrarily declare the one responsible for all their problems.
Bergdahl does not deserve prison time on top of his captivity. His debt has been paid. It’s safe to say that he has made the transition from conservative tool to conservative scapegoat.
So the question becomes, What moral failures are conservatives trying to gloss over by sticking it to Bergdahl?