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Eric C Ventures to the (Fox News) Dark Side: 7 Myths About the Bowe Bergdahl Prisoner Swap

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Last January, knee deep in Google traffic from people searching for the facts about Lone Survivor, some readers started sending us scoops. (Most of which we didn’t have the time to investigate.) One of those scoops came from a soldier who served in Bowe Bergdahl's unit, asking us to spread the word about Bergdahl’s desertion.

We didn’t investigate the matter any further, because Michael Hastings nailed it in a story for Rolling Stone on Bergdahl. (Though Hastings used Bergdahl’s desertion as a platform to criticize the war in Afghanistan in general, which felt out of place.)

It didn’t matter, though, because a few months later, President Obama arranged a prisoner swap with the Taliban for Bergdahl. Surprisingly for myself (Eric C), an avowed liberal, I ended up agreeing with Fox News, spending a week thinking that President Obama really screwed up.

Bergdahl deserted his unit; you just can’t do that. And for Obama to host a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his release, that’s just bad politics. I was actually pretty excited; I don’t find myself agreeing with the far right all that often, so I prided myself on my lack of bias. And as the right worked itself into a lather, I joined them, asking all the tough questions, like…

- Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

- Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

- We negotiated with terrorists?

- Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

- Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

- His dad has a terrorist beard?

- Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

But then the answers started coming...

Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

Michael C corrected me on this point: I wasn’t looking at the issue from the right perspective. In numeric terms, the deal sucked. But percentage-wise, it’s a really good deal. America got 100% of its prisoners of war back in exchange for less than 1% of theirs.

If you look at it that way, this deal makes sense.

Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

Oops! As Michael C covered yesterday, that just isn’t the case. And as the Afghan Analysts Network and the LA Times pretty clearly debunked, only one of the prisoners we exchanged for Bergdahl could be described as a hardened war criminal. The rest were bureaucrats.

To which you might say, “One war criminal is too many.” But that’s not what the media told us.

We negotiated with terrorists?

We didn’t negotiate with terrorists; we negotiated with an opposing army. We’re at war with the Taliban...of course we’d negotiate with the group we’re at war with.

Others have made this connection before. My connection would be to the larger, philosophical and lexicographical issues we’ve been writing about for months. If America is at war with terrorists--or savages or barbarians or primitives--then we can’t negotiate with them.

Which means these wars will never end.

Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

Well, President Bush did it as well. Hmm. Fox News didn’t really mention this. Legally, as Zach Beauchamp at Vox writes, the jury is out and may never come in.

Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story. Even the Salon article I linked to earlier--which debunked myths about Bergdahl’s release--inaccurately claimed that six to eight soldiers died looking for him.

The New York Times debunks the story pretty handedly:

“But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive--even as critics of Sergeant Bergdahl contend that every American combat death in Paktika Province in the months after he disappeared, from July to September 2009, was his fault…

“Two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search after Sergeant Bergdahl’s June 30 disappearance. Both were inside an outpost that came under attack, not out patrolling and running checkpoints looking for him. The other six soldiers died in late August and early September.”

So let me restate that: the information about Bergdahl’s release was so bad that even articles debunking myths about his release contained myths about his release.

His dad has a terrorist beard?

I’m not even going to dignify this one with a response, but The Daily Show handled it pretty well. (Min. 3:00)

Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

The myth that started it all and it isn’t even true. I really thought Obama had used those words, but check out the transcript of the event. It’s not there. (I only found this out trying to search for a quote to use against President Obama in the introduction of this post.)

How did I get this impression? Because news reports asked whether Bergdahl was a “hero” or a “traitor”, despite very few people outside of Bergdahl’s hometown using that word.

- The CNN article, “Fellow soldiers sall Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not hero” doesn’t have an example of someone calling him a hero.

- Howard Kurtz on (Where else?) Fox News, wrote “The president has also refused to walk back the initial casting of Bowe Bergdahl as a hero...” Except the President didn’t need to; he didn’t use that word.

- An NBC News’ headline asked, “Bowe Bergdahl: Is The Freed Soldier a Hero or Deserter?” despite the fact that only his hometown supporters claimed he was one.

- Time’s sub-headline asked, “What began as an uplifting tale of a rescued hero has become a political headache for President Obama. Did the White House oversell the controversial deal for Bowe Bergdahl?” And then didn’t use the word “hero” in the rest of the article.

So you’d be forgiven if you thought Democrats and President Obama were casting Bergdahl as a hero, even though they didn’t. (To be fair, Susan Rice said he served with honor and distinction, but that still mischaracterizes the issue.)

So, if you’re following the tone of this post, I’m no longer on the Fox News side of things on the Bergdahl swap. A Republican party that vehemently disagrees with the President saw an opportunity to score cheap political points, and did everything they could to drive the point home, including misusing and abusing the facts in the case.

Unfortunately, I have feeling the mistakes, distortions and lies will stick in the public’s mind, rather than the truth.

five comments

Also wanted to clarify, I’m really surprised another post like this doesn’t exist on the internet. I searched for other articles debunking the myths around the Bergdahl swap, and it really seems like, after the event fell out of the news cycle, so did any serious reporting on it. There are a few other articles, but none are thorough enough.


The biggest reason he has to be a traitor is because of the perpetual insistence on referring to any military member as a hero. Not a hero? Must be a dirtbag commie traitor. There just isn’t any room for discussion.
I can really appreciate this article posted today over at Best Defense and I think it ties in well with your post today. http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/201..

At the risk of kicking over an anthill, I have a question as a non-American. Given that the US places near-cult status on the POW-MIA flag and associated concept, and given the prevalence of mottos like “leave no man behind,” why is there such a fuss over this? Again, as an outsider, I interpret all of that to mean you want your living missing persons back so they can live out their lives in the US, you want your dead back so that families can have closure, and you want deserters back so they can be subject to American law.

This is clearly a very emotional issue, but I ask for purely educational purposes.


But surely you can’t pick and chose who to bring back. It’s not “leave no man behind” with an asterisk for those who don’t fit in with your narrative. He may be an embarrassment, but he’s still an American, and forgetting about him strikes me as a dangerous precedent. What if you had POWs who, it turned out, were defrauding the government through falsely claiming allowances, or who became the subjects of criminal investigations in the US after they’d deployed? Would the US take the easy option of forgetting about them? What if some future enemy housed deserters and POWs in the same facility? Would the future Son Tay or Cabanatuan rescue team go in with a list of people to NOT rescue?

Again, as an outside observer, it seems to me that this was a difficult decision to make, but was the right decision to make. Now, hosting press conferences at the White House is a separate issue and one that I can see would irritate all sorts of people (as does the habit of releasing info on Friday afternoons), but those are separate issues from adhering to a policy of bringing home Americans.

Or am I still not seeing this clearly?

@ F – To answer your first question, “why is there such a fuss over this?” It’s politics. Republican strategists saw an opportunity to make President Obama look bad, at they jumped at it. Republican strategists were the ones who initially reached out to Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers; tey were the ones who spread the lies about this prisoner transfer. Reading the casualty reports, it appear no one died looking for Bergdahl. They made it seem like six people did.