“How do I explain to a person that standing in an empty dark room hurts? … How like when you get that feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it. That happened to me, only instead I was like… ‘What am I?’”
This is the way American soldier Bowe Bergdahl described his experience as a prisoner of war, to filmmaker Mark Boal. After he deserted his platoon in Afghanistan in June 2009, an action that is considered a grave war crime against the United States Code of Military Justice, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan, and was held hostage for almost five years. In 2014, President Barack Obama traded five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay for the safe release of Bergdahl. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump criticised Obama for this action, claiming that the trade was a terrible deal given that Bergdahl was a “Dirty, Rotten Traitor”. Almost a year later, Bergdahl faces a military trial during which he will be charged with desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy. Having pleaded guilty, this Monday his sentence will be declared, with the possibility of a life imprisonment.
Soon after telling his perturbing account of waking up day after day in a cage, or tied to a bed frame, or in a room so dark and empty that it made him question his existence, Bergdahl talked about a moment he had in which he realised how, right outside the flimsy wooden door that kept him captive, was the entire world. His parents, fellow platoon members, the president, the military, the forces that were shaping his story: all existed outside of his miserable half-existence in that dirty cell. And, in truth, every person who had even a marginal connection to Bergdahl did, in fact, participate in the maniacal whirlwind that arose around his capture. Some worked to keep him hostage, some risked their lives trying to save him and others used him to achieve political gains.
One can’t help but be shocked by Bergdahl’s account of his imprisonment. Even more stunning is the irony of how, after the colossal effort that it took to liberate him, he came back to the United States to potentially lose his freedom once again -this time at the hands of his liberators.
It is a twisted reality that in order to maintain the power and composure of its dominion, all the US military needs is for Bergdahl to once again become that static figure behind a locked door. He must be the point of reference against which they might, once again, establish their rules and expectations, the logical coherence of their empire. It would be truly monstrous to suggest that Bergdahl deserves to suffer even one more day in his life. Bergdahl’s disciplining is not about personal reprimand. We must understand that, for American interests, the payment for his crimes comes not in his suffering, but in the reassertion of US power as an imperious and inviolable potency, both domestically and globally.
Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to all his crimes. He understands and regrets the illegality of his actions. He has suffered more than most are even capable of suffering, as a direct consequence of his actions—not within a legal punitive framework, but through five years of unimaginable torture. Yet, it is not unlikely that soon Bowe Bergdahl will find himself behind the door of punishment once again—for the sake of protecting and maintaining the fragile stability of the entire world outside.
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