This Is How It Ends

The anger directed at Bowe Bergdahl only makes sense if you remember what the War on Terror was supposed to be.

From this distance, it is hard to recall the heady days at the beginning of the Afghan War. Americans had been stunned on 9/11, and for some time afterwards we felt uncertain and sad. “Why do they hate us?” we asked. But then the rage came and blew our depression away. President Bush didn’t start that process, but he channeled it like this:

Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.

We were furious, certain of the righteousness of our anger, and confident in our power to exact revenge. No other cocktail of emotions is quite so invigorating.

And we were not just powerful, we were great and beneficent. In our majesty, we would grant freedom and democracy to lesser peoples who might never achieve such good fortune on their own. Not just in Afghanistan, where the attack against us had been planned, but in Iraq, and perhaps later in Iran and Syria and even eventually in Saudi Arabia and the oil emirates. We were the avatars of the great goddess Liberty and no one could stand in our way.


Tell me how this ends,” said General David Petraeus, then a mere division commander, as his unit crossed into Iraq. He was wise and experienced enough to know that no amount of shock and awe was going make Jeffersonianism break out across the Middle East, so something else had to happen. But what?

Now we know. We spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of American lives, and killed tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis. And in the end we are leaving — without a parade, without a “thank you”, leaving a legacy of weak governments still beset by insurgents. Most likely, those governments will either get stronger until they rival the tyrannical ones we overthrew, or they will perish and be replaced by something tougher.

Not what we pictured, is it? Our recessional might be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?

Anyway, this is how it ends: We leave. We leave on a date circled on someone’s calendar, a day that no doubt will look just like the day before or the day after. We leave, not because we have finished something or accomplished something, but just because it’s time. We left Iraq that way on December 18, 2011. Our combat mission ends in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and all our troops are supposed to be out by the end of 2016. President Obama said:

Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them. Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.

Could we stay longer? Maybe. Probably, if we wanted to badly enough. But how long? Until we accomplish … what? If there’s no what, then that future date is just another circle on a calendar. If then, why not now? Why not a long time ago?

So this is how it ends. We give back their people, they give back the one guy of ours they still have, because … what else are you going to do? Keep them forever? Why?

It feels crappy, doesn’t it? If you think dispassionately enough about it, you’ll realize that it was always going to feel crappy eventually, because … how else could it come out? Our Liberty-avatar high was bound to crash. What were we going to do? Slay the dragon? Marry the princess? What? But as long as we stayed, as long as we kept it all going, we didn’t have to think about that. We could keep pretending we were on our way to somewhere, keep imagining that someday soon we would feel again the way we felt back in those let’s-roll rid-the-world-of-evil days at the end of 2001.

My best advice for how to deal with that crappy feeling is just to let it run its course. Embrace the suck, as the soldiers used to say. Emotions are like water; if you just let them wash over you, before long they drip off and head for the nearest drain (rather than mounting up behind a dam and sooner or later devastating everything in their path). Let this one wash over, and eventually, we’ll feel something else. Maybe the next wave will motivate us to do something constructive and realistic that we can all be proud of some day.

It could happen. Really.

Or we could try some hair of the dog. Get angry again. Get angry at the president who set the clock that is running out, because he wouldn’t let us push this crappy feeling any further off into the future. Get angry at the deal to return that last prisoner. Get angry at the prisoner himself, because this is all his fault really.

Isn’t it? It feels like it must be. If not for him … something, I don’t know. Fill in the blank. It’s got to be his fault because I know it isn’t mine. I didn’t do anything. I was a perfectly marvelous avatar of Liberty and it felt great. Why did it have to end?

I don’t how else to make sense of the fury that has been directed at Bowe Bergdahl and his family this past week. You can say “It’s politics”, but that just shifts the question rather than answering it. Why does the politics work this way? Sure, Republicans are always looking for something they can pin on Obama (and if you can work the word impeachment into the conversation, so much the better), but how did they know this would do such a good job of firing up their base?

Just a few months ago, the conservative base was demanding that President Obama get Bergdahl back. Vox noticed this pattern:

[J]ust before Bergdahl was released, conservatives on Twitter loved to blast Obama for not freeing Bergdahl. There was even a whole meme on conservative Twitter saying Bergdahl was “abandoned by this administration.” But all of a sudden after Bergdahl was released, these people changed their tune.

Numerous congresspeople have had to scrub their Twitter-feeds to remove the evidence that they briefly thought getting an American POW back was a good thing. Most obviously, John McCain has turned on a dime from saying that he could approve the deal that had been on the table for months — Bergdahl for precisely these five named guys — to denouncing the deal after President Obama made it. He’s not alone. The most you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up reversal came from Oliver North of Iran/Contra fame; nobody’s allowed to negotiate with the bad guys but Ollie and his boss Ronny, I guess.

Steve Benen, Jean MacKenzie, and Hesiod have done a good job of taking down most outrageous talking points about Bergdahl.

  • Bergdahl is not a deserter. He seems to have been AWOL when captured, but he had wandered away from his base before and come back. Five years imprisonment with the Taliban is far greater punishment than a soldier typically gets for temporarily going AWOL.
  • He isn’t anti-American. Before coming to Afghanistan, he had been idealistic about how our military was “helping” the Afghan people. The realities of the war, the dysfunctionality of his unit, and the attitudes of his fellow soldiers towards the Afghanis disillusioned and disgusted him (and may explain why some of those soldiers are trashing him now). That’s where those out-of-context quotes about being “ashamed to be an American” come from. A longer quote: “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, that they have no idea how to live.” If that’s disloyalty, then a sizable chunk of the American public is disloyal, including me and probably most of my readers.
  • He didn’t get other soldiers killed. Men did die while on patrol, and Bergdahl was one of the things they were supposed to be looking for. But the NYT quotes an informed officer: “Look, it’s not like these soldiers would have been sitting around their base.”
  • He wasn’t turned. He even escaped once for a while.

Many of the talking points about the five men Bergdahl was exchanged for are equally ridiculous. Vox and CNN have more details, but here’s the gist.

  • They’re not terrorists. One downside of framing post-9/11 military operations as a “War on Terror” is that we started reflexively labeling all our enemies “terrorists” and equating them with the 9/11 hijackers. But at the time we invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban was a government fighting an insurgency. These men were involved in that government or that war. Granted, the Taliban was a horrible government and the tactics (on both sides) in that pre-9/11 civil war were reprehensible. So no one denies that some of the five are bad men — or at least they were 12 years ago. But to the extent that the word terrorist still means anything other than “enemy of America”, they were not terrorists. They weren’t even enemies of America until we invaded their country.
  • They’re not supermen. TV series like 24 and Homeland have created the myth of the Terrorist Superman: an unkillable mastermind who sees everything, has agents everywhere, and is always plotting ten moves ahead. But even in their prime, none of these guys were superhuman. And whatever they once were, they have been completely out of the loop for 12 years. A lot of the people they worked with and trusted are probably dead. No doubt they have symbolic value for the Taliban, but their military significance is questionable. Think about Mafiosi who get out after long prison terms, a situation that occurred more than once on The Sopranos. The gang celebrates their return, but doesn’t necessarily have a place for them now. And an imprisoned Mafioso isn’t nearly as cut off as these guys have been.

Finally, there’s the question of whether or not releasing the five detainees from Guantanamo broke the law — a decision Bergdahl himself had no part in. And the answer is: It’s a complex legal issue in which both parties justify themselves by switching the positions they held during the Bush administration. Adam Serwer describes the situation in detail.

To make a long story short: Ever since the Constitution divided responsibility for war and foreign policy between them, the President and Congress have been tussling over the boundary. Congress occasionally passes laws that limit the President’s power to do something-or-other, and presidents routinely claim these laws are unconstitutional. The War Powers Act is the prime example. Since 1973, when it passed over President Nixon’s veto, both branches have avoided a test case that the Supreme Court would have to rule on. Presidents have mostly complied with the Act, but always with the proviso that they were doing so as a courtesy; no president of either party has acknowledged the Act’s constitutionality. For its part, Congress has never tried to force a president to pull out troops he had committed.

So Section 1035 of the 493-page National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 regulates transfers from Guantanamo, and says:

The Secretary of Defense shall notify the appropriate committees of Congress of a determination of the Secretary under subsection (a) or (b) not later than 30 days before the transfer or release of the individual under such subsection.

President Obama signed the NDAA — the Pentagon would have gone unfunded if he had vetoed it — but attached a Bush-like signing statement.

Section 1035 of this Act gives the Administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad by easing rigid restrictions that have hindered negotiations with foreign countries and interfered with executive branch determinations about how and where to transfer detainees. Section 1035 does not, however, eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.

Citing a need to “act swiftly” to get this exchange done without endangering Sgt. Bergdahl, the Obama administration gave Congress only one day of notice rather than 30, having previously given Congress an “anticipatory briefing” laying out “the prospect of such an exchange”. In doing so, the administration claims to have respected the “spirit” of the law.

Jack Goldsmith, the head of the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, describes this as “quite a hard legal issue, with few real precedents.”

So Obama is definitely violating the anti-signing-statement rhetoric of his 2008 campaign. He’s being hypocritical in exactly the same way as his Republican critics who accepted Bush’s signing statements without objection and waved their hands about the President’s “Article II power” — as long as the president was somebody they liked.

Is that legalism and mutual hypocrisy what the conservative base’s man-on-the-street is fired up about? I kind of doubt it. I think they’re remembering that intoxicating post-9/11 fantasy about setting the whole world right, and wondering what became of it.

Is that all there is?

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • jmsabbagh  On June 9, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Negotiating with the terrorists means one thing on ly surrendering to terrorism.


  • By Making Peace | The Weekly Sift on June 9, 2014 at 11:43 am

    […] week’s featured article is “This Is How It Ends“. If you missed it, last week’s “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: