The late Michael Hastings wrote the definitive magazine profile of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for Rolling Stone in June 2012. Now that America’s Last Prisoner of War has been released, in a prisoner exchange for five high-ranking Taliban officials, Hastings’ piece continues to offer crucial context – about why Bergdahl volunteered for service in the first place, about how this intense, moral young man became so horrified by America’s “good war” that he walked away from his unit’s remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, and about the abortive negotiations that could have secured Bergdahls release years ago.
Here 13 things you need to know about the American POW who is coming finally home, in the words of Hastings’ 2012 feature.
1) Bowe grew up near Hailey, Idaho, the son of California expats and ski bums Jani and Bob Bergdahl, who lived “nearly off the grid” on 40 acres, home-schooling Bowe and his sister Sky in a demanding curriculum:
Devout Calvinists, they taught the children for six hours a day, instructing them in religious thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. “Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations,” his father recalls. “Bowe was definitely instilled with truth. He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics.”
2) Obsessed with Bear Grylls and Man vs. Wild, Bowe sought at age 20 to join the French Foreign Legion.
He traveled to Paris and started to learn French, but his application was rejected. “He was absolutely devastated when the French Foreign Legion didn’t take him,” Bob says.
3) Seeking adventure, instead, in American uniform, Bergdahl enlisted in the Army in 2008. His intensity alienated fellow soldiers. A friend from his unit, Jason Fry, recalled Bowe’s fierce independence and his prophetic warning:
“He wanted to be a mercenary, wanted to be a free gun,” says Fry. “He had a notion he was a survivalist, claimed he knew how to survive with nothing because he grew up in Idaho…. Before we deployed… him and I were talking about what it would be like,” Fry recalls. Bowe looked at his friend and made no bones about his plans. “If this deployment is lame,” Bowe said, “I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”
4) Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan — part of the Obama surge — was beset by deficits of leadership, “a collapse in unit morale and an almost complete breakdown of authority.”
The unruly situation was captured by … a British documentary filmmaker [whose] footage shows a bunch of soldiers who no longer give a shit: breaking even the most basic rules of combat, like wearing baseball caps on patrol instead of helmets.
5) As his tour dragged on, the hellish reality of war — including seeing an Afghan child run over by an American truck — weighed on Bergdahl, who came to see America’s presence in Afghan as “disgusting.”
“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid…
“We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks.”
6) After receiving an email from his father exhorting him to “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE,” Bowe slipped out of his unit’s barracks on June 30th, 2009. One man versus the wilds of Afghanistan, Bergdahl was equipped with just a knife, water, a digital camera and his diary. Barely 24 hours later, he’d be taken prisoner. Bergdahl’s capture is recorded in radio intercepts later released by WikiLeaks:
“WHAT HAPPENED. IS THAT TRUE THAT THEY CAPTURED AN AMERICAN GUY?”
“YES THEY DID. HE IS ALIVE.”
7) Bergdahl could have been freed in a prisoner exchange almost immediately, but the American officer in charge did not pull the trigger on a prisoner swap:
Tribal elders from the nearby village…had been asked by the Taliban to arrange a trade with U.S. forces. The insurgents wanted 15 of their jailed fighters released, along with an unidentified sum of money, in exchange for Bowe. The officer hedged, unwilling or unable to make such a bargain, and no deal was struck.
8) There was an official cover-up — one that included White House pressure on the New York Times and AP to keep Bergdahl’s name out of the papers.
[T]he Pentagon also scrambled to shut down any public discussion of Bowe. Members of Bowe’s brigade were required to sign nondisclosure agreements [forbidding] them to discuss any “personnel recovery” efforts – an obvious reference to Bowe…. As Bowe’s sister, Sky, wrote in a private e-mail: “I am afraid our government here in D.C. would like nothing better but to sweep PFC Bergdahl under the rug and wash their hands of him.”
9) At one point during his captivity, Bergdahl escaped:
For his part, Bowe does not appear to be a willing hostage. [In] August or September [of 2011], he reportedly managed to escape. When he was recaptured, he put up such a struggle that it took five militants to overpower him. “He fought like a boxer,” [said] a Taliban fighter who had seen Bowe.
10) Negotiations to bring Bergdahl home have been in the works for years — with Obama originally imagining the prisoner swap as an election-year overture toward a durable peace with the Taliban.
President Obama [has] announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”
11) But the swap didn’t have the backing of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, who weren’t ready to negotiate an end to the war, preferring the bloody path of counterinsurgency operations.
…Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are very wary about making a swap for Bowe. “Panetta and Hillary don’t give a shit about getting him home,” says one senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations. “They want to be able to say they COINed their way out of Afghanistan, or whatever, so it doesn’t look like they are cutting and running.”
12) The negotiations were also impeded by Senator John McCain, who was typically level-headed in this exchange with future Secretary of State John Kerry.
McCain, who endured almost six years of captivity as a prisoner of war, threw a fit at the prospect of releasing five Taliban detainees.
“They’re the five biggest murderers in world history!” McCain fumed.
Kerry, who supported the transfer, thought that was going a bit far. “John,” he said, “the five biggest murderers in the world?”
McCain was furious at the rebuke. “They killed Americans!” he responded. “I suppose Senator Kerry is OK with that?”
13) The bureaucratic clusterfuck in Washington had even led Bergdahl’s heartbroken father to seek his own negotiations with Bowe’s captors — explaining Bob Bergdahl’s beard and controversial command of conversational Arabic and Pashto.
Bob has considered going over to Pakistan – he’s grown a bushy beard, and he has sent his own YouTube video, directed at the Taliban, asking for his son’s release. “I’ll talk to them,” he says. “I’ll bring him home myself.”