Mid-May, 2014: President Obama calls leaders of Congress into a top-secret meeting and informs them of the opportunity to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released from Taliban captivity. Both Democrats and Republicans question the president about the wisdom of releasing five Taliban leaders, though, at the time, none of them have any idea how significant, or not, those individuals were before they were captured and sent to the military prison on Guantanamo Bay. The president reminds them that whether they are significant or not, or whether they pose a future threat to American forces, 1) they were never part of the Al Qaeda cabal that attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, 2) they were captured as enemy combatants in a war that will have drawn to a close by the time they are released from house arrest in Qatar, and 3) every civilized nation, and even some of the not-so-civilized nations, honors the tradition of releasing prisoners of war at the end of conflict. “That is how we got you back from North Vietnam, if you remember, John,” the president will be reported to have said to Sen. John McCain in accounts of the meeting years hence.
As the meeting progresses, it is apparent that, along with knowing nothing about the five Taliban leaders, the congressional leaders also know nothing about Bowe Bergdahl except that he is the only American soldier in enemy hands in Afghanistan, and that he has been held prisoner for five years. The details of his service record, his opinions on the United States' involvement in Afghanistan, and how he became a captive are murky and incomplete, and of course, Bowe himself isn’t there to provide any answers. But those details are not part of the considerations, anyway, because nobody questions the legitimacy of efforts to bring him home. Adding to the urgency, Obama explains that there is evidence the young soldier’s health is deteriorating, and that if they don’t act now, they may never get him back.
The congressional leaders begrudgingly grant Obama authority to make the exchange—the Democrats doing so out of loyalty to their president and the principle that unless it is an impossible, the American military does not leave soldiers behind. The Republicans do so because they fear the political ramifications of the public finding out they blocked the release of the only American POW of the Afghan war. Within hours of the top-secret meeting, the president sets in motion the mechanics of the exchange, a delicate procedure that must be handled with the utmost secrecy or the whole agreement may fall apart.
However, before the final arrangements can be made and Bergdahl is delivered into friendly hands, the story is leaked to the press—first to the Drudge Report
, from there spreading rapidly through the vast right-wing echo chamber—that President Obama has arranged the release of five of the most dangerous Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. No one will ever know where the leak originates, but it is widely assumed it comes from one or more of the several sources within Congress who have demonstrated during the past six years that there is no extreme to which they would not go in order to make the president look bad. As the orchestrated uproar crescendos in the predictable places—Fox News being the most predictable—and Republican congressmen vowing loudly to block the release of the five prisoners, U.S. diplomatic agencies desperately try to reconnect with their Taliban contacts and assure them the prisoner exchange has been authorized and that the vows are meaningless political posturing.
It is too late. The orchestrated outrage works and the damage is done. Thirty-six hours after the meeting between the president and the congressional leaders, a video arrives at the Al Jazeera offices in Kabul. On it, Sgt. Bergdahl is shown on his knees, an expression of unutterable terror on his face, and as one masked captor behind him rants about how the American president cannot be trusted, another saws off the young Idahoan’s head, then displays it to the camera.
Within minutes of the announcement that Bowe Bergdahl has been executed, every resource in the right-wing arsenal is realigned to the message that Barack Obama is such an incompetent, feckless and weak leader, he has done nothing to stop an American serviceman from meeting a hideous death, and calls for his impeachment intensify.
The nation mourns Sgt. Bergdahl and all unanswered questions of his capture and military service are either quickly forgotten, or not asked in the first place, with even those individuals who had been most critical of his alleged actions saying, “No U.S. soldier deserves that.” His father is interviewed on all the morning television shows, but the only mention of his beard or his having learned some of the enemy’s language is that he did it all in hopes of influencing his son’s captors.
In the town of Hailey, yellow ribbons are replaced with black ribbons. A memorial service is held in the high-school gymnasium to honor the fallen hero. Every network with a news division sends a reporter to cover the event. As they replay endlessly pictures of Bowe as a child, as a teenager, as a new, hopeful recruit in the Army, the question on every reporter’s tongue, every pundit’s tongue and an increasing number or regular American citizens’ tongues is, “How could this have gone so wrong?”
Only a handful ask, “Could the negotiations have been sabotaged intentionally in just another in the endless efforts to embarrass the president?” and Republican leaders demand apologies from anyone even hinting that they or any members of their party would put an American’s life in jeopardy for political gain. As the last of our soldiers pull out of Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl proves to be the last American casualty of that longest war in United States history.