BOOK REVIEW: American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the US Tragedy in Afghanistan

By Matt Farwell and Michael Ames. Penguin Press, hard cover, 388 pp with bibliography and index. US$37

On December 9, 2019, the Washington Post began a major series of stories called “The Afghanistan Papers” that was as devastating in its way as the Pentagon Papers were when the New York Times began printing the futile history of the Vietnam War in 1971.

According to 2,000 documents made available to the Post under the Freedom of Information Act, US officials lied to the American people through the entire course of the 17-year involvement of the US in Afghanistan, saying they were making progress when they weren’t, that throughout the course of the war they had no idea of their goals,  that officials had no idea of what they were undertaking, that they lacked a fundamental understanding of the Afghan people, that their war-fighting strategies were flawed and that conflicting strategies dogged the war from the start and more.

More than 157,000 Afghans have died – 43,000 of them civilians killed as collateral damage. Some 2,440 US troops have died there with 20,589 wounded and hundreds, perhaps thousands scarred for life psychologically from repeated deployments from a war that now the Pentagon says had no meaning.

There is no better poster boy to illustrate the folly of this than Robert Bowdrie Bergdahl, whose father gave him his middle name as a tribute to a fictional Texas Ranger who was the hero of pulp fiction western novels written by Louis L’Amour.  As Bowe Bergdahl, he became arguably the most famous or infamous US soldier in Afghanistan after his capture by the Taliban.

Bergdahl is the subject of “American Cipher,” a 388-page evisceration by authors Matt Farwell and Michael Ames of the war, the US Army, politicians in Washington, the news media and particularly cable television – especially Fox News – and to some extent of Bergdahl himself. The title is obviously a play on “American Sniper,” the memoir of marksman Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in US history, which was turned into an award-winning movie by Clint Eastwood.

The facts about Bergdahl are relatively clear, but the interpretation of those facts, especially by Fox News and its outriggers, is not. Bergdahl, a loner and a romantic misfit, joined the US Army after failing to complete boot training for the US Coast Guard and after attempting to join the French Foreign Legion as what he thought would be the ultimate adventure. He was turned down after journeying to Fort de Nogent near Paris. With the battle-hardened legionnaires laughing at him, he returned home, humiliated, to pick the US military instead.

According to the account by Farwell and Ames, Bergdahl shed his immaturity to turn out to be an excellent soldier – in fact so excellent that he appeared irrational, which mystified most of his mates, who mainly were just trying to get by. He ended up at an outpost deep in enemy territory in Afghanistan where he got up at 5 am in the morning, trained himself to sleep on a concrete floor, breezed through formation runs, learned languages in his downtime and meditated motionlessly, earning contempt from the others who spent their time goofing off and saw him as a freak, which he seems to have been in fact. In work details, he was often the only one working while his comrades watched.

Operationally, it was worse. Bergdahl was increasingly disgusted by the lack of discipline in his unit, the lack of leadership, the contempt for the locals, the fact that everything the unit did appeared to be contrary to any kind of rational mission. “The war he had been sold was a lie, he thought, a con spun from the desire in the American heart to spread freedom and liberate the tyrannized peoples of the world,” the authors write.

His lack of connection to the other men in the unit, their lack of dedication and his own misguided romanticism led him to what he would later realize almost instantly was a stupid decision. He crept out of the platoon perimeter on June 30, 2009, with the bizarre idea of walking through 16 miles of hostile territory to his command compound to tell a hero’s story to army leaders of corruption, bad leadership, lack of mission – all the elements that the Washington Post would write about 10 years later. 

He didn’t get far. He was almost immediately captured by Afghan partisans and sold to the notorious Taliban-aligned Haqqani network and moved over the border into Pakistan, where he would spend the next five years in conditions that can only be described as bestial while the Haqqanis sought to extract the highest price possible from the Americans who desperately wanted him back.

For reasons that are unclear, the army, despite irrefutable logic that told them Bergdahl was over the border in Pakistan, kept up an intensive hunt for him in Afghanistan, endangering troops on the search mission for him for no good reason, and resulting in the deaths of Afghan civilian gunned down during search missions and terrible injuries to searchers.

In the meantime, once the word got out of his capture, he was characterized as a deserter who had left his post to join the Taliban. “In civilian society, a person’s reputation is a complex and constantly evolving composite. In the Army, Bergdahl’s character had been settled. ‘The US Army is an organism, like any organization,’ said David Sedney, a senior Pentagon official who was in Kabul that summer. “And it rejected Bowe Bergdahl. It rejected Bowe Bergdahl as an alien object from the beginning.”

It wasn’t just Fox, but the mainstream media as well, that seemed to have little idea of the real circumstances of Bergdahl’s situation or the dynamics surrounding the whole affair, and little inclination to try to find out what reality was. While captured, according to this account, Bergdahl acted heroically, repeatedly trying to escape – making it eight days once -- and maintaining his sanity and dignity in the face of unspeakable treatment.

Nonetheless, for instance, CNN correspondent Jake Tapper reported that the search for Bergdahl had caused the fall of a remote mountain firebase, resulting in the deaths of eight US soldiers, which was untrue. Tapper never corrected his false report, which was picked up by the Daily Mail and inevitably by Fox.

Politicians in Washington leapt into the fray, eager to brand him as an “American Taliban” or worse.  The Bergdahl family, a kind of semi-survivalist clan in deepest Idaho, came in for similar abuse, with Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s then-chief demagogue, saying Bergdahl’s father Bob “looked like a Muslim” because he had a beard.

In the end, after almost five years, during which he became the longest-held prisoner of anti-western forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration traded him for five Taliban who had been held in Guantanamo Bay for so long they had lost their value if they ever had any. It later emerged that, far from trying to kill Americans, each of the five was either working as US intelligence assets or was detained while trying to offer the Americans assistance.

Nonetheless, the trade kicked off a firestorm, with politicians, Fox and Donald Trump, well before he became a presidential candidate, weighing in to vent and say Bergdahl wasn’t worth it. During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested Bergdahl should be executed by firing squad, pushed out of an airplane without a parachute or dropped back into Afghanistan.

Finally freed, Bergdahl, according to this account, underwent weeks of debriefings in which he provided the US military with valuable information about the Taliban and their tactics. He was eventually court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and was dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank from sergeant to private. He was given no prison time and freed immediately to return to the family home in Idaho.

“The actual history – of a dysfunctional intelligence operation, Bergdahl’s own illusions, and the highest echelons of the Army chain of command turning the battlefield crisis (of his capture) into an opportunity of war—served no political interests,” the two write. “Five months before the 2014 midterm elections, however, the scandal did meet the needs of the Republican Party and as the GOP geared up for its best opportunity to regain the Senate since 2006, the timing could not have been better. L’affaire Bergdahl was an offer too good to refuse.”

Today, Bergdahl has sought to have his discharge overturned because of Trump’s incendiary pre-trial comments during the campaign. He has returned to the obscurity that enfolded him prior to his escapade. Given the 2,000 documents unearthed by the Washington Post on the mismanagement and futility of the war by three presidents, perhaps it is best that he stay there.