Little girl Rambo Jessica Lynch told Congress, ‘I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend.’ (CNP / Corbis)

For most Americans, the story of Bowe Bergdahl’s release began in the Rose Garden. It was there, amid the ghosts of diplomatic initiatives transformative and failed, that President Obama stood between Bergdahl’s parents to announce the missing soldier’s impending return after nearly five years in Taliban captivity.

It must have been strange for the Bergdahls to stand next to the president in that famous garden—surreal, even. But it was also a happy moment: Their son was coming home. This was before criticism of Bob Bergdahl’s beard and his knowledge of foreign tongues echoed across the internet, before terms like “deserter,” “traitor,” and “Taliban lover” overtook the narrative.

The Bergdahls knew, as Obama knew, that there was nothing simple about the story of their son’s disappearance. They knew, as most anyone who has paid close attention to the war in Afghanistan knew, that he had walked off his base under murky circumstances and been captured by insurgents. They knew that American soldiers had risked their lives, and perhaps even died, trying to find him. That is what happens when a US soldier goes missing in a combat zone.

But the narratives that emerged most prominently in the American press in the days after Bergdahl’s release were not so complicated. One was that Bergdahl was a war hero, a soldier who, in the words of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, had served with “honor and distinction.” Another painted Bergdahl as a traitor and likely Taliban sympathizer, whose interest in Afghan culture and language had marked him as an outsider and a potential threat to his fellow soldiers. A third storyline depicted him as naïve and aimless, “at worst, a deserter. At best, a stupid kid who caused us to expend great energy and resources to bring him home,” as one Pentagon official told CBS. This last was the most nuanced, but it, too, had some obvious holes.

To some degree, this always happens with breaking news. A reporter gathers as many facts as time allows. It’s clear to anyone who’s not an idiot that more remains to be known, but editors and readers are demanding a story five minutes ago. We all know that post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, but the human penchant for storytelling forces its own kind of logic: Any three facts begin to look like a narrative, especially when they’re arranged chronologically. New information can change the story entirely, but in the absence of information, we tell the story we have. This is even more problematic now that a reporter who used to have eight hours to research and write such a story may have only eight minutes.

Hero? News accounts of former NFL star Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan were ‘wreathed in a patriotic glow,’ says his brother. (Photography Plus c/o Stealth Media Solutions / Reuters / Corbis)

But the manner in which Bergdahl’s story was told illuminates much more than the exigencies of breaking news. War stories reflect on our national character as many other stories don’t; they are also notoriously slippery, especially when told and re-told back home. All kinds of falsehoods ensue, because war is complicated, messy, and inscrutable, even to those who witness it firsthand and certainly to those who occasionally watch it on TV thousands of miles away. Plots from books, movies, and TV shows like Homeland mix with real life; gaps get filled, missing minutes reconstructed. The press holds up a mirror to the rest of us, and what the rest of us know and want to hear over and over are folktales. To grapple with the idea that Bowe Bergdahl is not a carbon copy of the square-jawed men we see on recruiting billboards, or of the skulking deserters of wars past, is too laborious. Stories, after all, serve many purposes. They do not just help us know what happened. They also console, strengthen, or shame us. The United States in particular has excelled at telling stories about itself. We are a nation of idealists. We believe that we win wars because we are better than our opponents—not just better fighters, but better, period.

Vanessa M. Gezari is the author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014. She teaches at Columbia Journalism School

This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Heroes and traitors."