For those of you not familiar with Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacciato I have two pieces of advice. Firstly, locate a copy and read it. It is as good and insightful a book on war as his better known The Things They Carried. Secondly, be prepared to find in Cacciato more than a faint echo of Bowe Bergdahl, the missing US soldier traded this week for five Taliban figures after going missing in action half a decade ago.
Bergdahl has not just been “gone after” in the literal sense of the military search for him. Any analysis of the Bergdahl case must first take account of the fact that the soldier is a stick to beat Obama with. In fact, as one commentator pointed out this week, your position on Bergdahl basically hinges on your view of the President. It is also notable that a number of Republicans, having jumped the gun, quickly backtracked, and deleted tweets celebrating the soldiers release as partisan battle-lines shifted and solidified.
We must also understand that the western media, with regards to the empire that it serves, already has a tried and tested model in place for dealing with soldier, military-type personnel or establishment, who drop the script: the “hero or traitor/coward?” approach. It is through this unhelpful prism that most people will see the story unfold. The same model has been employed against Manning, Snowden, and a variety of other whistle-blowers, as well as war resisters across the world, including myself. It is by now so ingrained – in the liberal as well as Tory media, here in the UK – that it has become purely reflexive. Across the spectrum, that very same question is asked, though of course it is answered slightly differently. Needless to say, this framing lacks any kind of nuance and is hopelessly inadequate if we want to understand the issue.
The most level-headed account of Bergdahl’s life up until 2012 is a long-form report by the late Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. It was apparent to me upon reading it that until his disappearance in-theatre that Bergdahl’s life had been an American slant on my own. Like myself, he was home educated, experienced a poor but wholesome rural upbringing, he’d played and hunted in the Idaho wilderness as I had in the forests and valleys of northern England, and later became something of a drifter with a romanticized idea of the military and its role in the world.
At that point, Bergdahl appears to have fallen into the very same trap as I did in believing his national military was a kind of good-doing aid agency with guns. This was no doubt mainly due to the fact that western armies market themselves to the public and to potential recruits as good-doing aid agencies with guns.
Bergdahl became a soldier at a critical time in recent US imperial history, deploying during Obama’s violent escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The result of his tour was disillusionment with the occupation into which he was thrust, leading to the development of anti-war views. Views which many of his comrades seem to have shared. The collapse of the heroic myth to which young men pledge their lives as soldiers, I can tell you first-hand, is as deeply jarring as Bergdahl’s emails home suggest. Nothing smarts more for a soldier possessed by a noble vision of his profession like realizing that you were only ever a Redcoat.
Hastings’ report also notes that Bergdahl swore to a comrade that if his tour of Afghanistan was unendurably “lame”, he would strike out from his post towards either Pakistan or India. O’Brien’s Cacciato was more ambitious, relating to a colleague that he was “…going up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country…and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy…” with his unfortunate mates on his heels the whole way from Vietnam to Paris. Bergdahl also left the wire, but when he headed out, he appears to have been captured almost immediately. And so the US Army went after Bowe Bergdahl, and a search began, which his critics are today dredging up in the most fascinating tones.
Chief amongst the accusations is that Bergdahl is a deserter, and that the search, or, one would assume, capture efforts, cost the lives of somewhere between six and fourteen soldiers, claims which are being repeated as fact, despite the Pentagon stating, through the steadfastly leftist medium of Fox News, that it is simply impossible to know if this is the case.
The loudest of Bergdahl’s attackers so far has been one Nathan Bethea, who claims in the sorest possible terms that he and his colleagues were gagged by the military as part of a non-disclosure order meant to protect Bergdahl. A question which must be asked, then, is did Bethea decide to publish his essay on Bergdahl under his own steam? If not, then who un-gagged him and gave the nod to tell all in The Daily Beast? And, critically, to what end?
There are a number of issues with the arguments being made by Bethea et al. Firstly, virtually every claim made against Bergdahl has already been debunked or challenged, or at least complicated by a highly detailed report published in the New York Times.
Secondly, and it might take a soldier to see it, there is something deeply familiar in the tone of the criticism coming from other soldiers. It smacks of the pettiness which, in war, grips men as often as courage or dignity and indeed defines the real tribal, desperate face of conflict. The one we don’t generally see.
I hear the bitterness of men who found a spiritual punch-bag in the absent Bergdahl and used it to get through a hard tour, during a failing war, which we should note from the NYT piece was clearly escalating before Bergdahl went missing. One can almost hear the slurs of those who remained, even though many of them appear to have agreed with Bergahl’s views of the war. Including Bethea, who refers to the campaign as “quixotic.”
It sounds to me like men died in the futility of an Afghan fighting season made worse not by Bergdahl’s disappearance, but by the US foreign policy of the moment. To lay the blame on Bergdahl, who only in a deeply twisted sense “got out of it” is not only intellectually dishonest, but quite at odds with the facts that are available.
It is also worth remembering that infantry soldiers on the ground, and this is especially true of a war like Afghanistan, tend to have the least complete picture of the conflict. To return to Cacciato – and bearing in mind that O’Brien soldiered through a similar counter-insurgency war himself – we might consider this insight into the mindset and experience of the fighting grunt, and consider whether or not it might apply, to inform or colour the testimony of men such as Bethea:
“In battle, in a war, a soldier sees only a tiny fragment of what is available to be seen. The soldier is not a photographic machine. He is not a camera. He registers, so to speak, only those few items that he is predisposed to register and not a single thing more. Do you understand this? So I am saying to you that after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a was is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers.”
In addition, I can’t think of a better indicator of tunnel vision than the tendency to whittle down blame for the hardships and casualties of the war in Afghanistan to a single army private. As opposed to, say, the Pentagon, or if individual figures are needed, then perhaps the last two US commanders-in-chief perhaps…
To me, knowing well the lynch-mob internal culture of western armies, and knowing that soldiers tend to fill in the blanks themselves to make sense of it all, it seems less and less likely that Bergdahl’s shortcoming were ones of courage, martial skill or loyalty. As Chase Madar, author of the defining book on Bradley Manning said of his subject, Bergdahl’s real failure, like mine, like Bethea’s and like so many other post 9/11 military veterans, was one of cynicism. Our mistake was to buy into the Afghanistan mission as it was explained to us, and to drink the Kool-Aid. Our major malfunction was to be true believers.