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. Continue reading