U.S.A. Bowe Bergdahl. Soldier. Friend. Son. Deserter, Hero, Traitor?

In our obsession with categorical labels and black-or-white judgments, we as a society have forgotten that Bowe Bergdahl is not only a political symbol and a media sensation but also a human being who has suffered captivity, isolation, and alleged torture and continues to suffer as we vilify him in the press.

I am an outsider, far removed from Bergdahl, his platoon, and the events surrounding his captivity in Afghanistan. I have no ground from which to criticize his fellow soldiers whom he may have abandoned and endangered. I am a civilian, and I speak to my fellow civilians. We do not know the whole story. We have bits and pieces of conflicting testimonies that form an abstract image of events, and yet we demand an immediate and definitive interpretation of this mosaic. All we have at the moment is conjecture. Perhaps Bergdahl deserted. Perhaps he was taken against his will. Perhaps he experienced a crisis of conscience, believing that his actions as a soldier were morally wrong, and did what he thought was right. We do not know. Not only are we ignorant of how the events of his separation from his platoon played out, we are ignorant of his state of mind and his intentions. In short, we are hideously unqualified to pass judgement on Bergdahl. Will we subject a former POW to a trial by media sans facts?

Traitor or hero? Does it have to be one extreme or the other? Can we, a society addicted to sensationalism, scandal and the glare of our TVs, not accept that Bergdahl may have erred and suffered greatly for it? Is there any punishment we can dole out that is worse than five years of isolated captivity in the hands of the Taliban? He has done his penance. He has paid his debt to us. I doubt Bergdahl will ever be able to shake this albatross around his neck. Why do we want to make him suffer more? Talk about kicking a man when he’s down. For five years he endured the Taliban, probably with little hope of returning home, of ever seeing his family and friends, again. He finally gets the chance, when the US government decides that he’s close enough to death to merit rescuing, and his home country turns against him before he ever reaches US soil.

Are we so addicted to sensationalist stories that we will crucify a hospitalized POW in the press before he gets a chance to tell his story? Will we make up our minds about him before we have the facts? In an age of instant access to information, are we too impatient and self-righteous to have mercy now and judge later? I was not there. You were not there. His platoon members may be the only people who have any right to judge, though I would beg them to consider the price he paid for his alleged wrongdoing. Combat does not affect soldiers uniformly. We cannot know how we would have behaved in his position in Afghanistan. Let us bear in mind that healing is a process not an event. The psychological wounds will be open long after the physical wounds have healed. At this time, we cannot rule out the possibility that trauma played a role in his decisions and beliefs. As he recovers from the past five years, he and his family can still look forward to recovery from societal rejection. Keep in mind that Bergdahl is not an island. His mother country may choose to condemn him, but his mother and father do not. After five years of fighting to bring their son home, they now face the pain that the Taliban inflicted and that their fellow Americans continue to inflict upon their family.

Though I cannot know what I would have done in his position in Afghanistan, I have a clearer idea of what I would want were I in his current position. I would want the chance to heal and to explain. I would want the chance to rejoin a society that has not already condemned and demonized me. I would want mercy, compassion, understanding. Forgiveness. The true sequence of events is irrelevant right now because it is unknown. What matters now is whether we treat Bergdahl as innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent. Whatever the truth may be, whether we end up with a clear version of it or not, do we as humans and as a society still have the capacity to forgive? Or would we rather continue Bergdahl’s torture where the Taliban left off, this time in front of his family, his community, and the TV cameras?

Yes, the issue is political. What we tell our politicians will influence future political actions. I know, I know. We do not negotiate with terrorists. As soon as we label someone a terrorist, we have no alternative but to destroy him. If we do not negotiate, we limit ourselves to extreme options. Look how well not negotiating is working out for the U.S. Congress. We must destroy the terrorists or destroy ourselves in the process. I reject the notion of allowing terror to control us, but if wars are ever to end, there must be a chance to hear each other over the whizz of bullets. If nothing else, we can look for mutually-beneficial opportunities, such as POW swaps. We do not know how much of a threat the five released Taliban prisoners will pose to us in the future. Not only are we unable to see the future, but predictions are too biased by political interests to give credible answers right now. As a side note, this would be a good time to review our individual opinions regarding the integrity of keeping the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay open.

The point is, there is a human being at the center of this political rift. I am not asking anyone to embrace the alleged desertion of Bowe Bergdahl. All I ask is that we reserve judgement and keep our hearts merciful. Remember the penance he has done and the foreignness of his situation to our understanding. What good will it do to prolong his suffering? Will it make us a better society? If we are not willing to listen to him, we have deserted him. We will have rejected him as though we had abandoned him in Afghanistan. What ever happened to No Man Left Behind?