Bowe Bergdahl, Pat Tillman, and the media’s problem with simplifying soldiers

Why it's problematic for the press to define heroes or traitors
September 2, 2014

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.

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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.

Recall the story of Private First Class Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old West Virginia soldier who was captured after her convoy was ambushed during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US military painted Lynch as a hero who went down fighting. At a difficult moment in a questionable war, her dramatic rescue from an Iraqi hospital by a joint force that included Navy Seals and Army Rangers seemed to symbolize all that was good and just about American aims. But when Lynch recovered, she told a very different story. She said she had been knocked out after her vehicle was initially hit, and had never fired her gun. At the Iraqi hospital where she was taken, doctors tried to fix her broken bones and nurses kept her company and attempted to soothe her, and even tried to smuggle Lynch back to the Americans.

At a 2007 congressional hearing, Lynch described her ordeal and spoke of the “tales of great heroism” being told about her back home: “the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting.”

“It was not true,” Lynch told the committee. “I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend. . . .The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies. The truth of war is not always easy.”

Kevin Tillman spoke pointedly at that same hearing of how the US Army and the government had spun the death of his brother, Pat, a famous NFL player who had joined the Army after 9/11, turning it from a story of one man’s needless killing by friendly fire into a tale of a heroic fight against the enemy.

At a time when American casualties were spiking in Iraq, tens of thousands of soldiers had their tours extended, and the Abu Ghraib scandal was about to break, the government needed a good-news story, and the press obliged. “The media accounts, based on information provided by the Army and the White House, were wreathed in a patriotic glow and became more dramatic in tone,” Tillman testified. “A terrible tragedy that might have further undermined support for the war in Iraq was transformed into an inspirational message that served instead to support the nation’s foreign policy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Fog of war Early reports of Bowe Bergdahl’s release portrayed him as a hero, or a deserter, or a naive kid. As more information came out, Bergdahl’s story grew ever more complicated, and those initial conclusions sounded ever more inadequate. (Associated Press)

Did the same thing happen with Bergdahl? Were the Army and the White House looking for a “good news” story amid the country’s messy pullout from Afghanistan, a place many Americans would like to forget?

Possibly, but there are problems with this interpretation. While the Bergdahl story certainly contained elements of good news—a missing soldier is returned to his family, the Army keeps its promise to leave no one behind—there was plenty of potential bad news, too, including Bergdahl’s own role in his disappearance, which was known by many and would soon to be known by everyone. Another obvious drawback for the government was the release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the soldier’s freedom, an element of the story that President Obama made no attempt to hide during the Rose Garden announcement.

Indeed, Obama spoke soberly that June day, even reiterating his desire to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, hardly a popular position. There was nothing bombastic or even particularly celebratory about his words or his tone. No one called Bergdahl a “hero.” But reading the coverage that followed, you might have thought the ceremony had involved fireworks, red-white-and-blue bunting, and cake.

“After Bergdahl’s release, a sickening spectacle in the Rose Garden,” read the headline of a Washington Post opinion piece whose author, Richard Cohen, gave Obama a “pass” on the prisoner swap and failing to tell Congress in advance, but not on his “warm” behavior toward Bob and Jani Bergdahl. “I am not for executing deserters,” Cohen wrote, “but I am not for hugging their parents, either.”

To say that the story had become politicized is an understatement. In an editorial published the week after the Rose Garden ceremony, The New York Times noted Senator John McCain’s one-eighty on Bergdahl since telling CNN four months earlier that he supported efforts to win the soldier’s release and would consider trading Taliban prisoners for him. When the exchange actually happened, McCain said he “would not have made this deal,” calling it “troubling.” Others in Congress followed suit.

War is made up of ordinary people trying to survive and prevail in extraordinary circumstances. This is as true of American teenagers as it is of Taliban field commanders, but it is not the story we want to hear at moments of confusion and potential danger. Kevin Tillman touched on this in his remarks on his brother’s death: “To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military it was a nightmare. But to others in the government, it appears to have been an opportunity.” As a nation—and perhaps as a species—we cannot abide disorienting moments. They must be filled with meaning, and plenty of people are eager to supply it.

Was Bergdahl a hero or a traitor? Probably neither. Upstanding soldier-citizen or deserter? We don’t know because we don’t have all the facts. The worst way to tell this kind of a story is to accept platitudes about how people behave in war. The best way was exemplified by some of the deep reporting on Bergdahl before and after his release, which showed that he likely bears little resemblance to that iconic figure many Americans imagine when they hear the word “soldier.”

Exhibit A in this group is Michael Hastings’ 2012 Rolling Stone profile of Bergdahl. Hastings, like many others, didn’t appreciate the way the war was going, and he used Bergdahl to channel some of his reasoned disgust. In his telling, Bergdahl is essentially a conscientious objector, a thoughtful young man home-schooled in philosophy and ethics by observant Calvinists in rural Idaho with a quixotic but ultimately sympathetic plan to travel the world in search of action and adventure. When Bergdahl was 20, he went to Paris to learn French so he could join the French Foreign Legion (the group rejected him). Later, he dreamed of creating a unit with “some military people dressed up like UN people” to kill warlords whose militias prey on civilians in Africa. He joined the Army and was sent to Afghanistan, only to find that the whole thing was a “deception.” In the words of his father, Bob: “We were given a fictitious picture, an artificially created picture of what we were doing in Afghanistan.”

Hastings’ piece gets at Bergdahl’s youthful naiveté; he “often came across more like a boy on an adventure than a soldier preparing for war,” fellow soldiers recalled. But there are also signs that he was disconnected from reality in ways that suggest deeper psychological difficulties. At times, Bergdahl seemed to be “living in a novel,” his father told Hastings. “He wanted to be a mercenary, wanted to be a free gun,” one of his unit mates, Jason Fry, recalled. Fry spoke of hearing “crazy” stories about Bergdahl.

Other accounts published after Bergdahl’s release sharpen the idea that he was psychologically unbalanced, based in part on the soldier’s diary and letters home. Kim Harrison, a close friend of Bergdahl’s to whom he sent journals and his laptop, told The Washington Post that she was “concerned about the portrayal of Bergdahl as a calculating deserter,” a characterization she says is at odds with her understanding of him as “sensitive and vulnerable.”

In Harrison’s view, Bergdahl was “the perfect example of a person who should not have gone” to war. He had previously been discharged from the Coast Guard on psychological grounds, she said. But Bergdahl enlisted at a time when the Army needed more bodies and was issuing waivers to get as many people in as possible, despite criminal records, health conditions, and other things that would normally have kept them from serving.

The Times reported that a note Bergdahl left when he walked away from his base suggested that “he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan, and was leaving to start a new life.” (Three days later, the paper backtracked a bit, citing a classified military investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance that  doesn’t mention any such letter, though the retired officer who told reporters about it “insisted” that it existed.) In Hastings’ account, Bergdahl emerges as a reasoned critic of his commanders, his undisciplined fellow soldiers, and the war itself. A mission he was on had gone awry, and a fellow soldier and friend had been killed. In a final email to his parents in late June 2009, Bergdahl wrote:

The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american[sic]. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting . . .. I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.

Bergdahl sounds clear and cogent in the email, but elsewhere his writing conveys emotional and psychological unrest. “I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking blackness was all I had in front of me, that it would be blackness to the very last instent[sic],” he wrote in a journal, according to the Post. “I know this is not right. I know that there is light in this darkness, and that I can actuly[sic] reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to it.”

“War is foggy, or some such thing, and not all eyewitness accounts are accurate—you know the clichés,” Richard Cohen wrote in his Post piece criticizing Obama’s too-tender treatment of Bergdahl’s parents. The fog of war may be a cliché, but our penchant for portraying soldiers as either heroes or cowards is a more dangerous one.

Vanessa M. Gezari is the managing editor of CJR and author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014.