Let’s be honest, the circumstances surrounding the ‘prisoner swap’ between Bowe Bergdahl and five high-ranking Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay just don’t add up. The initial narrative President Obama pitched of the prisoner swap as a signal of successful negotiations, a necessary response for a fellow soldier whose health was in jeopardy, and further evidence that the ‘war’ in Afghanistan is indeed drawing to a close, has completely disintegrated as waves of questions continue to be raised about the facts, legality, and implications of the exchange, including:
Did President Obama break the law by not giving Congress 30 days notice of the prisoner swap?
Was Bergdahl a prisoner of war? If he deserted, is he still a prisoner of war?
What’s with Bergdahl’s father- his obvious beard, and evidence he has been, studying Pashto (he used it in the recent press conference, sparking deep discomfort among some) and trying to learn about his son’s captors?
What is Qatar’s role as an intermediary? How will keeping these 5 detainees in Qatar ensure American safety, as Obama claims?
If Bergdahl was a prisoner of war, and this was a prisoner swap, how does this impact the US classification of Guantanamo Bay detainees as ‘enemy combatants’ for over a decade? If they are now prisoners of war, do they get prisoner of war rights….finally?
In addition to these questions, discussions about Bergdahl are now largely centered around 1) the legality of the swap, and 2) the circumstances surrounding Berdahl’s initial disappearance from his base 5 years ago. The former debate is playing out between lawyers, politicians, and the media. At the same time, the latter debate has taken on a life of its own- it seems to be a sort of public trial and judgement on Bergdahl’s character, and whether he is ‘worth’ the efforts made to return him to America. As the discussions descend into a “bumper-sticker debate,” characterized by cliche claims and concerns, the following questions dominate the debate: Is he a deserter and traitor, who felt “ashamed” to be a soldier and was disillusioned with the war in Afghanistan? Or, is he a patriot, who served bravely and ‘suffered enough’ as a prisoner of war? What is more interesting than the ‘facts’ surrounding the story, is the frame being used. This is a classic band of brothers problem.
The band of brothers narrative has been used in reference to the US military for decades- and has become particularly salient during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ideals of the ‘special’ bonds of soldiers, comradeship, and the need to put one’s brother first have all become such embedded cliches that we hardly question them. It helps that the HBO TV series Band of Brothers spoon fed us the key elements of the band of brothers myth: war is primarily about combat, the ‘real’ story is the bonds between the men- not the politics of the war itself, the non-sexual bonds and relationships between men are exceptional- romantic in their own way, and essential to warfare. So here we are, with Bergdahl, who represents a band of brothers (BOB) problem. In fact, the ‘patriot’/’traitor’ debate is informed entirely by the band of brother myth and its implicit messages about soldier and national identity. President Obama and other government officials defended the swap by using the BOB narrative. They focused on the fact that he bravely signed up to serve his country, was taken as a prisoner of war, and deserved to be protected and brought home- since the US ‘leaves no man behind‘.
Yet an alternative narrative has emerged: Bergdahl potentially abandoned his brothers by leaving base voluntarily; he also questioned the war and felt “ashamed” to be a soldier; finally, he put his fellow brothers at risk during the missions to find him. Those who take on this narrative seem to feel that Bergdahl’s choice to ‘go rogue’ absolves him of his right to be protected. He ‘broke the code’ and is no longer a brother. He questioned the war, and is now an outsider with no rights. He was sympathetic to the enemy and is not worthy of sympathy or the ‘hero’ classification (Bergdahl’s hometown cancelled his welcome home ceremony as a result of the speculation about his ‘hero’ status).
One would think that regardless of Bergdahl’s service record, his politics, or his choices, he deserves to be treated as an American citizen. Surely soldiers have rights regardless of whether they question a mission, or raise concerns regarding the ethics of a war. It is too simple to buy into the ‘hero’ versus ‘deserter’ narrative (note the focus on the ‘true’ heroes, as the men who died trying to locate Bergdahl) and avoid thinking about the complexity of the situation, and the way that the narrative is being constructed and manipulated for political purposes.