With all due respect to the folks at Aeon, none of us can say with confidence how we’ll be remembered. Still, unless the world soon devolves into a nightmarish hell of famine, death, pestilence and war, I think it’s fair to presume that future generations will not remember President Barack Obama’s tenure as a second era of good feelings. The country’s political system has been through worse, of course. That whole Civil War thing, for example, was not great.
If I had to guess which moment future Americans will regard as the low point of our recent past, I’d imagine the time we came thisclose to causing yet another global financial panic will be a strong contender. But as bad as that was, it’s not the episode I’ll remember most bitterly. No, when I think back on this weird, disordered time, the memory most likely to make me wince won’t have to do with austerity or health care or Wall Street reform. It will be, instead, the controversy surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was charged by the U.S. Army with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy earlier this week.
For those who don’t remember, Bergdahl is the young man who spent five years in Afghanistan being tortured as a prisoner of the Taliban, and who became a figure of enormous controversy after the White House decided to “swap” him for five Taliban militants held at Guantanamo Bay. At the time of the deal, Bergdahl was thought by most Americans — especially conservatives eager to attack Obama — to be a prisoner of war. Taking a step toward closing Guantanamo once and for all, while simultaneously bringing an American boy home, seemed, at first, like a moral and political no-brainer.
It was not to be. Soon after reports that the Bergdahl transaction was real went public, murmurings started popping up in the press intimating that the POW wasn’t a victim. It turned out that rather than being captured while fighting heroically for democracy and freedom, Bergdahl fell into the Taliban’s hands while wandering, without permission, from his base. The reasons why he did so were unclear, but a narrative soon formed on the far-right — courtesy of Richard Grenell, a Fox News yakker and former advisor to neoconservative “death walrus” John Bolton — that Bergdahl was a coward who’d grown disillusioned with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and wanted to join the other side.
Once they had decided that Bergdahl was a traitor, one that other soldiers had died trying to save, conservatives were overcome by a spasm of bloodthirsty nationalism and belligerent tribalism like few I’ve ever seen. Sarah Palin, who’d only months before slammed Obama for leaving Bergdahl behind, railed that the swap gave “Osama Bin Laden’s partners in evil crime” cause to “joyfully celebrate.” Fox News published an inexcusably shoddy report alleging Bergdahl had converted to Islam in hopes of becoming a jihadist. Rush Limbaugh argued that his release was an “excuse” for President Obama to do what he always wanted and let terrorists “run free.”
And then the story faded, until the Army’s announcement earlier this week. Predictably, much of the right-wing media took the news as vindication, despite the fact that being charged and being found guilty are not the same thing. “[W]hat do you say now?” Bill O’Reilly asked of the trade’s defenders. Former congressman and proud torturer Allen West, meanwhile, was preemptively enraged by a “disgusting” attempt to portray Bergdahl as a victim from the “liberal press.” Rank-and-file conservatives once again filled Twitter and far-right comment threads with lurid dreck and violent fantasies.
Lost in all the ghoulish triumphalism were some pertinent facts. Those who felt the administration did the right thing, for example, never argued that Bergdahl was innocent of any wrongdoing; it was the principle of “leave no man behind” that was at stake. For another, the Army is not seeking the death penalty for Bergdahl, which would certainly have been his fate if he’d been left to his captors, as many conservatives recommended. More importantly, the possibility that Bergdahl had left his base in order to travel to another and report wrongdoing — which he didn’t trust his possibly complicit commanders to take seriously — also went unmentioned.
But even if the far-right conservatives swept up in jingoist fervor were able to calm themselves down long enough to look at the evidence, it wouldn’t make a difference. Because Bergdahl, in their eyes, is not a human being. He’s a symbol of all that’s rotten about those who don’t identify as “real” Americans. The cognitive dissonance inspired by an American solider — one from Idaho, no less — who sounds like he could be a recruit for Code Pink is too great. The idea that one could be a veteran of war and not think like Oliver North is too threatening.
Whether people years from now will understand the unfiltered venom and atmosphere of violence the Bergdahl episode has inspired I cannot say. And it’d be hard to argue that a flare-up of the culture war, however nasty, was the worst of many ugly recent incidents. What I can say, though, is that when I close my eyes and think of the time when it most felt like truly dangerous forces were ascendant in the Obama years, moments like this are what I’ll see.