The Bowe Bergdahl brouhaha: Verdict first, evidence later

     This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. A U.S. official says Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years, will be court martialed on charges of desertion and avoiding military service. (U.S. Army/AP Photo, File)

    This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. A U.S. official says Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years, will be court martialed on charges of desertion and avoiding military service. (U.S. Army/AP Photo, File)

    What’s most disturbing about the Bowe Bergdahl story – and so noxiously predictable – is the mad rush to judgment in advance of the verifiable facts.

    But alas, that’s how we roll as a culture. Frank Bruni nailed it in his Times column last Sunday: “Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth – the knowable, verifiable truth – is left in the dust.”

    And he wrote that before the Bergdahl story broke.

    This week, the verbal sludge has piled so high that we might need EPA Superfund money to clean it up. Bergdahl has been judged a traitor and a deserter, Bergdahl was supposedly way healthier than the Obama administration has claimed, Bergdahl’s dad has a long beard that makes him “look like a Muslim” (whereas the Duck Dynasty beards are apparently all-American), lots of soldiers supposedly died while looking for Bergdahl, the five released Taliban guys are existential threats to America, and on and on.

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    That cursory list doesn’t include all the Republicans who for years banged on Barack Obama for leaving a soldier behind – only to instantaneously reverse themselves and bang on him for bringing the soldier home. (U-turn specialist John McCain is predictably incensed today; yet here he was four months ago: “I would support ways of bringing him home, and if exchange was one of them, that would be something I think we should seriously consider.”)

    And it was particularly dispiriting, albeit entertaining, to see Oliver North on Fox News, ranting that Bergdahl’s release will make America less safe. This is the same guy who, circa 1986, worked a secret deal to free some American hostages…by selling 2000 missiles to Iran. I waited in vain for Fox News to supply that crucial contextual information to its credulous viewers.

    It would also be helpful if the Fox folks didn’t behave as if this were the first time that a nation had ever orchestrated a prisoner swap. We all know that right-wingers love Israel, so here’s an inconvenient empirical fact: Israel at one point swapped 1,027 Palestianian prisoners in order to get back just one of their own soldiers.

    But here’s the crux of the matter:

    I know it’s a waste of time to suggest that we think and wait before we rush to palpitate, but rather than simply spew without a clue, perhaps we should pause to consider all the stuff we still don’t know.

    There’s no empirical evidence that Bergdahl was a deserter. The best news story thus far quotes from a classified military report: “The roughly 35-page report, completed two months after Sergeant Bergdahl left his unit, concludes that he most likely walked away of his own free will from his outpost in the dark of night, and it criticized lax security practices and poor discipline in his unit. But it stops short of concluding that there is solid evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl, then a private, intended to permanently desert.” And there’s no evidence, in the military report, that Bergdahl “left behind a letter in his tent that explicitly said he was deserting.”

    Nor is there empirical evidence that soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit died while looking for him. According to an unproven allegation, as many as eight soldiers died. Nevertheless, “a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive.”

    (Even if Bergdahl was as bad as the demonizers say, that wouldn’t justify leaving him behind. Today happens to be the 70th anniversary of D-Day; we rightly honor the vets of World War II. Yet it’s historical fact that 50,000 American soldiers deserted during that war. Who among us would’ve argued back in the day that those deserters should’ve been left behind?)

    Nor do we know the actual state of Berghdahl’s mental and physical health, because no medical information has been released. Nor do we know whether, or to what extent, the five released Taliban prisoners will be a threat to America – although we do know that they’ve been sitting in jail for more than a decade (they’re not battle-ready); that they’ll be under house arrest in Qatar for another year; that when they do return to Afghanistan, we’ll be leaving; and that, with us leaving, they would’ve been released anyway.

    John Bellinger, a former national security adviser to George W. Bush, even said on Tuesday: “This conflict in Afghanistan is winding down, and we would be required, under the traditional laws of war, to return people that we’ve detained in that conflict. So it seems in this case, we traded them for a reasonable deal here.”

    But I’m giving the last word to retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the Afghanistan war at the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance. For starters, he told Yahoo News that “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.” Then he said this: “We’re going to have to wait and talk to Sgt Bergdahl now and get his side of the story. One of the great things about America is, we should not judge until we know the facts. And after we know the facts, then we should make a mature judgment.”

    Know the facts before passing judgment? Wow. I want to live in that America.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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