A conversation with Matt Farwell, author of “American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan” (Penguin Press, 2019).
The same day in June 2009 that Bowe Bergdahl, a 23-year-old private first class from Sun Valley, Idaho, walked off his military outpost in Paktika, Afghanistan, Sgt. Matt Farwell received the news that a friend with whom he served in 2007 had overdosed on opioids at his home in Alabama. On the ground in Afghanistan, the Army mobilized a weekslong search for the missing soldier. Back in the United States, the service denied Farwell’s friend a military burial because he had a less-than-honorable discharge for drug use — a habit Farwell says was a result of his deteriorating mental health following their tour in Afghanistan. Farwell and three other soldiers attended the funeral in uniform and delivered an American flag to their friend’s family, since the Army wouldn’t. “I was still reeling from that when I heard a soldier had gone missing in Afghanistan,” Farwell says. “For the past 10 years, I think I channeled a lot of that grief into interest — to the point of obsession — with the Bergdahl story.”
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Within hours of walking away, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban, and he was brutally tortured for nearly five years before being returned to the United States. Seven months after Bergdahl disappeared, Farwell’s older brother, Chief Warrant Officer Gary Marc Farwell, was killed in a helicopter crash in Germany. One of Farwell’s last acts as a soldier was to escort his brother’s body home to be buried in eastern Idaho, close to his wife’s family. He separated from the Army shortly after, without any plan for what to do next. “Four and a half years in the Army, including 16 months as an infantryman in eastern Afghanistan, provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world,” Farwell wrote in 2011 for the At War blog. “It was, however, wonderful preparation for being homeless.” He tried college but dropped out of two different schools. He spent time in a mental hospital. He drifted to California, where he ran out of money, all while trying to hide from the “ugliness of violent, unpredictable death” he had experienced during his deployment.
Over time Farwell’s unrelenting infatuation with Bergdahl’s story helped to propel him out of his own self-destruction. He worked on a profile of Bergdahl with Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in June 2012. Two years later Bergdahl became the linchpin of an American foreign-policy decision after he was released in a prisoner exchange negotiated by the Obama administration, which traded him for five Taliban detainees being held at Guantánamo Bay. The media coverage of the prisoner swap turned the soldier into a household name. Bergdahl morphed into a singular figure onto which Americans projected their resentment of the never-ending war in Afghanistan. He had abandoned his fellow soldiers. The Army’s search for him had put people at unnecessary risk, and at least three service members were wounded during attempted rescue missions. Why were we negotiating with terrorists to get him back in the first place? Even Donald Trump publicly voiced his opinion of Bergdahl during his election campaign, calling Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor.” The denunciations “fed into the worst instincts of the military, the media and the public,” says Farwell, who was disgusted by the response, but also motivated to get the story right.
On March 12, Penguin Press released “American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan,” written by Farwell and Michael Ames, which examines Bergdahl’s decision to abandon his post and its cascading effects across the war effort. In late 2015, Bergdahl was the subject of the second season of “Serial,” a podcast whose opening season was the first to achieve five million downloads. (I also started a podcast at this time with two former military officers. Together we analyzed every episode of the Bergdahl investigation by “Serial.”) According to “American Cipher,” “hearing the accused soldier admit his crime to a Hollywood screenwriter on national airwaves” forced the Army to court-martial Bergdahl on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, pushing the soldier even further into the public spotlight. By the time the trial was over, Bergdahl represented more than just his own bad decision. He stood for everything that was wrong with the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan. Now Farwell — who was sent to the same province of the same war from which Bergdahl walked away — has returned to the story and produced an honest examination of both Bergdahl and the conflict that drove him to abandon his brothers in arms.
In late 2017, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to the charges, but faced no jail time. The Army reduced his rank to private, fined him and ordered that he be discharged dishonorably. “There would be no ceremony to banish Bergdahl from the military,” the epilogue of “American Cipher” reads. “Instead, in a spare room in the courthouse, he simply took off his uniform with the sergeant’s stripes that he had been deemed no longer fit to wear and changed into civilian clothes.” For Farwell, seeing his work in print has finally put his obsession with Bergdahl to rest: “I did what I set out to do.” Now, he says, “I’m trying to get over the war.”
In an interview with The Times, Farwell talked about America’s involvement in Afghanistan, the repeated policy failures of multiple presidential administrations and the public’s eagerness to shirk responsibility for the country’s longest war.
The book starts back in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Why there?
In 1979, Bergdahl’s father, Bob, was an Olympic-caliber cyclist, dreaming of a medal — and then American participation in the Olympics was canceled because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bob and Jani Bergdahl responded to this global event by moving to Idaho and starting a family. Jimmy Carter and the United States responded by initiating a huge covert action campaign in Afghanistan to bleed the Soviets. Fast-forward 30 years: In 2009, Bob and Jani’s son was in Afghanistan, being held captive by the sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a man the United States trained and equipped to bleed the Soviets. To tell both stories in parallel, and make people ask why we’re still there, it was necessary to explain how events that happened decades ago reverberate in our world today.
The book covers multiple presidential administrations. How have the policy failures of past presidents affected the war in Afghanistan?
When it comes to Afghanistan policy, there are no blameless, or bloodless, hands among any of the American presidents, Democrat or Republican — and this goes back even further than Carter: in fact, to Eisenhower pumping billions into an Idaho-based construction company tasked with creating dams and towns called “Little America” in southern Afghanistan. One of the most striking things when examining the continuum of what The Onion aptly called “the quagmire-building effort in Afghanistan” in 2009 is when you realize how completely bipartisan it was and is.
The failure we now see in that country is an American failure. Jimmy Carter initiated the gigantic covert action campaign that used the C.I.A. to train the fathers of the men we now fight. Ronald Reagan expanded the program. George H.W. Bush abandoned the country after the Soviets left. Bill Clinton ignored the Taliban and decided not to kill bin Laden. The Sept. 11 attacks happened, and George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to get bin Laden and topple the Taliban, even though the hijackers were largely from Saudi Arabia and got their best training in Miami, Phoenix and San Diego. Bush forgot about the war after invading Iraq, and then Barack Obama came in and expanded the Afghan war to cover his political flanks on withdrawal in Iraq. The sad litany of failure can’t easily be pinned on any one administration or political party, or even one American institution, but is visible to me every time I go for an appointment at my local veterans’ hospital and see broken men and women.
Do you think the American public’s resentment toward Bergdahl has dissipated with time?
The hatred of Bergdahl was unwarranted and unfair. We all really failed. As a country, we were bullies. The nation, goaded on by a media with a short attention span and a love of artificial controversy, unfairly projected a lot of the discomfort in the collective American unconsciousness about the war in Afghanistan onto Bergdahl. We didn’t do that to Robert Bales, who walked off his base twice and murdered 16 innocent people. After Vietnam, the Pentagon learned more about winning the public relations fight than the battlefield fight.
I hope the book will show people that all the men and women who fought and sacrificed in Afghanistan are human beings, not the caricatures that soldiers are often made out as. They’re human beings who form a tiny minority of Americans who bear the costs of this war and pass it on to their children and their families.
Do you think that Bergdahl’s actions in 2009 were the result of a greater systemic failure within the Army?
I’m not looking to excuse what Bergdahl did. I’m looking to try to explain why he did it, and why it matters. No one made Bergdahl walk off the base besides Bergdahl. He did something that, as a former soldier, bugs the hell out of me, something I never did: He walked away. He pleaded guilty to the desertion charge against him. The Army, from Bergdahl’s immediate leadership up the chain to its commander in chief, all share in his failure. If Bergdahl and the Army failed this badly, that indicates a larger failure within the American society that put them in that situation to begin with. As the wars dragged on, fewer and fewer Americans wanted to fight in them, and the Army was having trouble making its recruiting goals and had serious problems with attrition at every rank. So they lowered the bar to enlist — admitting felons, giving waivers to the mentally ill, lowering intelligence and physical standards — to keep their numbers up and keep get fresh bodies into the meat grinder in Afghanistan.
According to the book, the decision by the podcast “Serial” to make Bergdahl the subject of their second season basically forced the Army to court-martial him. Do you think it was unethical of “Serial” to release recordings of their interviews with him?
I think it was scummy and exploitative. Was the decision by Mark Boal, the season’s executive producer, who was originally interviewing Bergdahl so he could make a movie, to tape-record a low-ranking soldier — a traumatized torture victim facing potential criminal prosecution — for research purposes unethical? Probably not on its own, though it seems exploitative and done under false pretenses to me. It crossed into really gross territory when Boal couldn’t secure financing for his film and made the decision to partner with a hot-property hipster podcast to gin up some buzz for the project.
Boal and the “Serial” executive producer Sarah Koenig used the most salacious and self-incriminating clips of Bergdahl from the 25 hours of the “background research” audio, and timed the release of the first episode for the week before Abrams made his decision. It’s almost twee to talk about whether or not that was ethical; it was a calculated decision on their part, and I don’t believe ethics came into it. Expediency did. The last thing I want to do is make it sound as if I think Boal or Koenig had any ethics or values to begin with.
The book examines the American government’s hostage-negotiation policies, and it ends with some reforms that created an interagency hostage-recovery unit under the Obama administration in June 2015. Why did it take so long for these reforms to happen, and are they enough?
This isn’t a bug in American policy, it’s a feature we pretend doesn’t exist. It took a case like Bergdahl’s — in which you have an American soldier as the pawn — for people to sit up and notice that the system was broken. For almost five years, Bergdahl, normally under the jurisdiction of the American military, was held in Pakistan, an ostensibly allied country, where only the C.I.A. was allowed to operate, and they had bigger fish to fry than Bergdahl. The F.B.I. was claiming that because it was a kidnapping, it was their case, but they lacked the resources to resolve it. The State Department saw it as a way to open wider negotiations and somehow regain relevance in a conflict they had been largely iced out of. Only when Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, who had been one of the first Green Berets into Afghanistan, decided to force the issue — a moment of great integrity at great personal sacrifice — were politicians forced to sit up and take notice and make changes. Is it enough? Probably not. Sweeping policy changes will never be enough for Americans with loved ones still in captivity overseas, and there are plenty of those still.
What will be lasting impact of the Bergdahl case on the military?
I hate to say it, but most likely very little. There are some legal precedents that were set, and it had its ripples on the war; one that is never talked about is how Bergdahl passed along actionable intelligence and lessons learned from captivity to the appropriate military and intelligence authorities. That had a lasting impact, the kind that can be measured in drone-strike dates and casualties on a timeline: A lot of the Haqqani network’s leadership was killed by C.I.A. drones following Bergdahl’s repatriation. But how do we expect the military to learn from this, if we have trouble doing it as individuals and as a society? Acknowledging that someone like Bergdahl, whom the American public once loudly proclaimed a traitor and tried to further imprison, did more than his fair share to dismantle the terror network that held him captive in an allied country is a really uncomfortable thing to do if you’re wedded to a narrative about the war, so for the military it is better just to sweep it all under the rug post-court-martial and forget about it.
Lauren Katzenberg is the editor of the The Times Magazine’s At War channel.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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