This article is a follow-up to my previous piece, the widely shared Negotiating With Terrorists.
6/7/14: Addendum at the end of the post.
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
― Muhammed Ali
We are the sum of our parts.
Our memories and our experiences shape who we are and, more importantly, how we see the world.
By definition, our worldview tends to change over time. That malleable viewpoint is influenced by a thousand things: friends and enemies and the indifferent, marriage, children, information both true and false, trauma, stress, grief, joy, depression, hope, rage, hate, love, education, reason, to name but a few.
Age often lends a certain perspective, not always, but often.
Sometimes that perspective can completely change who we are – sometimes we call that wisdom. Or not.
Sometimes we change ourselves. We don’t like who we are, and so we deliberately become someone else – ask any recovering alcoholic if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Or a born again Christian. Or a scrawny kid like me who joined the military and set out to prove something to himself. Sometimes it’s involuntary, driven by outside forces and influences – have a chat with veteran about PTSD if you need an example. And sometimes that change comes willie-nillie as we careen happily assbackward into the unknown.
And sometimes, well, sometimes life just hardens who we are.
It’s different for each of us.
When I was young, a teenager, just before I enlisted for the first time, a group of radical Islamists overthrew the Shah of Iran and took sixty-six American diplomats and their staff hostage from the US Embassy in Tehran. For four hundred and forty-four days those men and women were held captive while we Americans seethed in impotent rage.
I was young then, true, but I don’t remember America hating Muslims before that. When I was a kid, the terrorists who committed endless atrocities came from Belfast – and the money to support their cause, along with the money to fight them, came from right here in America and I knew other kids whose parents were on both sides of the fight. Those Irishmen were terrorists, but we didn’t hate them – but then they weren’t attacking us either, so maybe that’s the difference.
They were killing our friends though, so then again maybe it’s something else.
Afterward, after the revolution in Iran, and then the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut a few years later, it was the Arabs who were terrorists – and they’ve remained so ever since.
And we often hate them.
And maybe some of them have earned it.
The Iranian Hostage Crisis came to define the Carter Presidency and I, like many other Americans, despised the President for not doing something, anything, to get our people back. Arabs, they’re just a bunch of goat herders, towelheads, my naive 18-year old self thought. Just park a nuclear aircraft carrier off the coast and land the Marines! That’ll scare the dirty sons of bitches! Show ‘em who they’re messing with! Christ, Jimmy Carter, what a damned pussy! Why doesn’t this guy do something?
And, of course, when we finally did do something a year into the crisis, the rescue mission – Operation Eagle Claw – crashed and burned in the Iranian Desert and eight American servicemen died. A half dozen more were badly injured. Two multi-million dollar aircraft were destroyed and five more were abandoned to the Iranians – along with the hostages.
It was … shameful.
And that too I blamed on Carter’s incompetence, and I was so goddamned glad to be rid of him when Ronald Reagan took the White House.
But, time, you see, does tend to temper the heat of youthful passion and lend one that perspective I mentioned up above.
Three decades later, almost all of which was spent in military service, in so-called peace and in war and in everything in between (a significant fraction of which was spent within spitting distance of that self-same Iran), and I tend to view things far differently. You see, unlike that naïve 18-year old kid, the me of today, the experienced US Navy Chief Warrant Officer, me, I know what it would have taken to pull off that rescue – especially in 1980, with the limited technology and the rusting post-Vietnam equipment and the general state of the US Military. I know in endless detail. I know the troops and the equipment and the weapons and the comms and the terrain and most especially I know the intelligence problem, because that was my job. I know the politics, and that too was my job. Hell, I served with men who were there, in the desert that night in 1980, watching helplessly as their comrades died in fire.
Because of that and many other things, I’ve come to view the Carter Administration in a very different light and I shake my head now in sympathy at the impossible situation, at the hate and the rage and the uninformed criticism the president faced – including my own scorn – in addition to the terrible tactical, strategic, economic, and political problems.
And so, here we are.
Two days ago I wrote Negotiating With Terrorists.
On the surface, that essay is about the return of an American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl.
But underneath, the article is really about the same socio-political themes I commonly address, hate, fear, political insanity, reflexive unreason, hysterical punditry, division for profit, and empty patriotism.
The article appears to have struck a nerve.
Negotiating With Terrorists went viral. It continues to go viral. It’s not yet the most widely read or shared thing I’ve ever written, but it’s getting there.
As with everything nowadays, Americans are deeply divided on this issue because it seems we must lately line up on either side of any issue no matter how great or how trivial and scream reflexive hatred at each other. And again, like everything else, that division tends to the extremes and my email today reflects that in spades.
Over all, most of those messages are positive, tens of thousands of people agree enthusiastically with what I wrote. But many emphatically do not – and that hatemail, and it is hate mail, is pretty damned toxic indeed. Here are a few samples:
fuck go fuck yourself fucking ass coward i fucking hope your scum ass licker fucking dies people like you make me fucking puke!!
YES! I HATE OBLAMMER OK? I HATE HIM I HATE THAT HE HAS DESTROYED THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. OBAMA”CARE” HELLO! I HATED THE NAZIS TOO AND I FOUGHT THEM IN EUROPE YOU LITTLE SNOT. WAKE UP!
Liberals are cowards one and all just like the author of this hatchet job. Obviously he has never served. Coward.
Let me be the first to say GFY! [Go Fuck Yourself] … I feel sorry for anybody who had to serve under your traitorous command.
you are a liar! Borg.dum is a fuckin muzzie traitor! That is a FACT. He walked away from his post and left Americans to die and that is indisputable fact. hell ya leave him to die! He is not an American you are wrong about that stonehead.
And these are the more, intelligent, ones.
Nothing in the hundreds of hate comments that attempted to post here on Stonekettle Station, nothing in the thousand plus emails I’ve received in the last two days, none of the pundits, not Rush, not Glenn, not Ann, not Sarah, not Sean, none of the politicians most especially John McCain nor Ted Cruz, nothing has convinced me that I was in any way wrong in my analysis yesterday. If anything, I take it as validation of my initial premise.
But then I got a letter from a Marine.
He is a United States Marine Corps Captain, recently returned from his second tour in Afghanistan. He disagreed with my article. But, and here’s the thing so pay attention, the Captain’s letter was polite, respectful as in one peer to another, firm in its opinion, intelligent, thoughtful, reasoned, did not engage in personal attacks, and was written in a clear and concise manner. And he signed his name to the bottom of it.
In other words, exactly what I would expect from a Marine.
There is a reason why Marines have commanded respect the world over for more than 200 years, and it’s not just their pretty faces and unmatched fighting ability.
The Captain asked me if I would retract or edit Negotiating With Terrorists.
I told him no. But not because I didn’t consider it. Because you see this Marine brought me forcefully back to where I began here today, and that is this: We are the sum of our experiences.
And despite the fact that I spent two and half decades in uniform and served in this war, my experience is emphatically not the Captain’s.
Nor is it that of the soldiers who served alongside Bowe Bergdahl.
I knew this, I acknowledged it the previous essay:
Certainly, some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers say he deserted. That he was disillusioned with the war, with America, that he left his guard post and walked away into the desert in some foolish and quixotic attempt to reach China. They say that men, good men, real heroes, died searching for Bergdahl after he disappeared.
And those soldiers, they’d probably know, wouldn’t they?
And, yeah, if I was one of them I’d be damned resentful too and I have no doubt whatsoever that I’d use this blog to protest those who would attempt to paint Bergdahl as a hero – if I knew for certain that he deserted, if I’d lost friends searching for him.
I don’t begrudge those soldiers one iota of their resentment, they earned it with their own blood.
And I meant that, sincerely.
But in retrospect it’s clear to me that I wasn’t expansive enough.
And I know this because some misguided people attempted to use my essay, my words, to school a Marine Captain who had just returned from the war zone.
These people attempted to use my experience to discredit his.
This was never my intention. Never. And I find it as unacceptable as he did.
Now listen carefully: what I said was that those aforementioned pundits, the usual cast of hatemongers and their like-minded politicians, are doing their usual dance – and that dance is motivated by hate, pure and simple. Hate is profitable and they’ve refined it to a fine art.
What I did not say, what I specifically did not say, was that I thought the soldiers mentioned in that paragraph above were to be painted with the same brush. I didn’t say it, because I don’t think it and you damned well shouldn’t either. And the next time you attempt to use my words to chastise a Marine, I’d be honored to hold his hat while he explains to you the folly of your ways.
We are the sum of our experiences.
Those Soldiers, those Marines, those Sailors, those Airmen, and those Guardsmen are fully entitled to their resentment. It is possible that like my own example above, thirty years from now they may view things differently – or maybe they won’t. There are those veterans from Vietnam who have forgiven Jane Fonda, and there others who wouldn’t piss on her only if she happened to be fully engulfed in flames. Both are entitled to their opinions, they earned that right with their own blood and Fonda can live with the Goddamned consequences of her own actions.
Just as Bergdahl will.
I told the Captain that I could not retract my article, instead what I would do is give him (and by extension those he had led and those who had served alongside Bowe Bergdahl) a platform.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Right now. You read my words, now read his. I want you to read this warrior’s words, every one of them. You don’t have to agree with him, but you need to see the situation through a Marine’s eyes, though the eyes of those who wear the uniform and who stand into danger with steadfast devotion.
We are the sum of our experiences, this is his:
With Bergdahl’s return we have the expected torrent of screaming from all sides. Would to God that Americans could learn again to have dignity and discuss their viewpoints without vitriol. Or at least value silence. Left and Right. This Bergdahl issue is one that a small sliver of our population has any real business speaking about: Uniformed service-people.
Recent conversations have highlighted three misconceptions, at least from my perspective as a twice deployed Marine Captain, that the media is broadcasting in this prisoner transfer case: That Bergdahl was a POW, that the trade-off was empathetic, and that disagreeing with this process is somehow political.
On both my deployments to Afghanistan we were all briefed thoroughly on this guy. We were to keep an eye out and ask around about him, even in Helmand. From intel collection they learned that he apparently got upset with Army life and walked off his camp one night. He sought out the Taliban and aligned himself with them. Our understanding was that he may have taught them US weapons, IED making, and tactics. That’s called not only desertion, but aiding and abetting the enemy. Not a prisoner taken against his will. You will note, he was never designated a POW. There is a reason.
From current conversations with my intel connections, it seems we knew where this guy has been for some time. But since he originally cost at least 6 lives by being a little ****, the vote was that he did not rate any more American blood. We all swore the same oath… the enormous majority kept ours. Bergdahl broke his and cost lives.
However, he needed to come back at some point to face the consequences or homecoming, whatever was appropriate. We go through great lengths to salvage our dead, even if just their souls are dead. Like all good things in life, such sensitivities take timing and precision. What is so maddening about this from a military standpoint is that we traded the Himmler posse of Afghanistan for a guy who willingly went and joined our enemy and contributed to at least the deaths of 6 of his comrades. It’s like “Tommy Boy Does Foreign Policy”. The 5 Taliban leaders are evil. Suicide belt on Down’s syndrome kid evil. Bombing school buses evil. Digging eyes out of skulls with a spoon evil. And they will continue to wage their jihad on the Afghans that my people worked too hard to set up for success. And if the Taliban has any sense (and they do) these 5 guys will start up Jihad SERE School 2.0. That makes this trade seem not so much based on empathy. It seems amateur. It seems like ineptitude. In the real world of blood and loss, the end result is important just as long as the process doesn’t totally undermine it. Like a pyrrhic victory. These concerns are not partisan. Or maybe these guys are implanted with revenge which will come later.
Every young person in uniform has been told at one time or another, “Good initiative, bad judgment”. Would that a kindly entity could put his arm around certain decision makers and frankly state such as a mentoring opportunity. This trade will be looked at as a giant victory to our enemies--- the real jihadist network. Why is that important? PR. Their information operations for the next few seasons is set. By us. They succeed as long as they can convince young and aspiring jihadists that they can make the US wilt. It deepens the impression that the administration is way over its head. Which is why there exist things like war committees in Congress, who legally should have been included in this decision but were bypassed. Again: the appearance of ineptitude. If not heard a single person in uniform begrudge Bergdahl his return. There are exponential WFTs as to the process, however.
And to answer a previous question about the value of a US serviceman because he’s a serviceman: If I were to walk off from my trusted place of duty, join the enemy, and conspire to kill my brothers, how many Taliban would I be worth? Exactly zero. Honor and duty still trump platitudes and dishonor earns magnificent violence.
We have rescue forces second to none in the world. By a long shot. If we desired, we could have pulled him out. We’ve known where he was, down to the number of guys guarding him. Our true professionals could have done some great work there. What didn’t need to happen is that we give back major chess pieces who return to a hero’s welcome and trade high-value targets for low-value propositions. In the end it will not be people at Paypal, Dell, or ATK who will bear the brunt of this. It’ll be my brothers and sisters in the Marines, Navy, and Army. And there will be blood.
I’m about to freeze the comments on Negotiating With Terrorists, I think that conversation has run its course, and I’m going to close here with this:
I stand by what I wrote, but what I wrote isn’t the whole story.
Part of the remainder was described to you by a Marine Captain. And there is more to come. There are legitimate questions that need to be answered, some of those by President Obama, some by his detractors in Congress, and a great deal more by Bowe Bergdahl himself.
Six brave men died getting Bowe Bergdahl home. Five dangerous men went free. You must never forget that, that was the cost of Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom.
But, we don’t leave our people behind.
Consider however what the Captain said, more may die as a consequence of what it took to make good on that sacred promise, and that, my fellow Americans, that is the price you will pay.
The question will always be: was he worth it?
Was it worth the price we had to pay? But that’s always the question, isn’t it? In war the price is always, always terrible and this is part of it, right here.
Was he worth it?
I don’t know the answer to that.
I think those who love Bowe Bergdahl would say that he was indeed worth the price, and more.
But I suspect the six Gold Star Mothers of those men who died chasing after Bergdahl would say something different – and in point of fact I don’t have to guess, I read their outrage yesterday when my words were linked to their sorrow.
Was it worth it?
I don’t know, but let me ask you this: if, if, Bergdahl is tried and found innocent, then don’t we as a nation owe it to those dead men to finish what they started? And if Bergdahl is guilty, then don’t we owe it to those self same dead heroes, those men who came of their own free will and gave of themselves the last full measure of devotion, and don’t we owe it to all the living ones who like the Captain, like me, served our country honorably and stood steadfast by our duty, don’t we owe it to ourselves to bring Bergdahl home to account for his sins? Don’t we?
Was he worth it?
I have no idea.
Look me up in thirty years, maybe I’ll know then.
I expected more of my readership.
I asked you see the situation through a soldier’s eyes. Instead some of you have resorted to the same kneejerk blinkered responses you accuse the Captain of and you’ve missed the point of this follow-up. I wrote it the way I did for a reason. I’d like you to go back and read it again, carefully, dispassionately this time. And let’s leave the conspiracy theories regarding the military chain of command at home this time.
I asked you to look at this from a different viewpoint for a reason, and I expected those of you who know me, who read me on a regular basis, to think about what I said.
Something a lot of you are missing, especially those of you who lack military command experience: the Captain’s position, and that of his superiors, makes perfect tactical sense.
They had to assume the worst case scenario.
They had to assume Bergdahl was compromised. And until they have proof otherwise, they must continue to assume so – they must assume that Bergdahl gave up what he knew to his captors, tactics, techniques, intel, routines, routes, all of it. Whether you assume that Bergdahl gave it up willingly or under torture or because of Stockholm syndrome or whatever, you have to assume that he did give it up.
Anything else is irresponsible.
I’ve told you over and over, war is dirty and immoral and fucking horrible, this, right here, is part of it.
The Captain’s, and that of his chain of command, are the only correct viewpoint for military leaders in their position.
The Captain has to assume that the enemy has his playbook, anything else gets his Marines killed.
Debriefing of Bergdahl will take years and may show that he didn’t give up anything of value, or it may not.
Which is why I directly implied that the Captain may feel differently in the future, when the memories and the heat of war have faded, and the true situation is known.
Or he may not – even if history eventually shows that Bergdahl isn’t a deserter.
And if Bergdahl is a deserter, it may be that thirty years from now he, Bergdahl, will come to regret his actions – which is why I deliberately mentioned Jane Fonda who now deeply regrets hers. And while those regrets don’t change the facts, they may temper how others view the events of history. And if that’s so, it may change the Captain’s position. Someday. Or, should it go the other way, it may change mine. Someday.
Which is why I ended the piece with the line I did.
The Captain has good reason to believe the way he does, unlike the raging pundits and politicians mentioned in the previous piece.
You, I hope, can find a place of reason in between.
A lot has been made about whether or not the six soldiers who died in the aftermath of Bergdahl’s disappearance specifically died looking for Bergdahl.
I find this utterly unnecessary argument distasteful.
Those men died in the performance of their duties.
They died in the service of their sworn oath.
They died in the service of their country.
They died in a foreign land, in a war zone, wearing the uniform of the United States of America.
Whether they were out there under orders to specifically look for Bergdahl or not, they were still looking for him.
Those six dead men, along with all the others who fell in this shitty war, are indeed the price we Americans paid. They are the price Bergdahl’s unit paid. They’re the price Bergdahl paid, intentionally or not.
Watching those dead soldiers’ bodies be dragged through the streets of the media by self-serving politicians and media pundits and the shouting mob on both sides of the aisle disgusts me.
Here at least, I’d appreciate it if you’d show those dead men the respect they deserve.
A note about commenting: Comments are in full moderation and will remain so until further notice. I’m not going to reemphasize the commenting rules, you’re suppose to be an adult, act like one. If you behave like a child, your comment will not post. //Jim