Ex-U.S. Official on Bowe Bergdahl Charges: Why Are We Vilifying an Ex-POW Tortured by Taliban?

March 30, 2015


Matthew Hoh

former marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, he served in Iraq. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Last June, he wrote an article for Politico magazine headlined "Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl: He and his parents have suffered enough—like all of us veterans."

With Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl facing charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the case has revived controversy over how the Obama administration won his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay. On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the White House for documents related to the swap. Others have raised different questions over the Bergdahl case, including whether he is being unfairly targeted while the military and political leaders who mishandled the Afghan War evade scrutiny. We speak with Matthew Hoh, a former marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue to look at the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held in Taliban captivity for five years after leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009. He was freed last year in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who had been held for years at Guantánamo. Last week, the Army announced it plans to charge Sergeant Bergdahl with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

The tough military charges Bergdahl faces have revived controversy over how the Obama administration won his release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. Fox News reports at least three of the five have since attempted to reconnect with their former terrorist networks. On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the White House for documents related to the swap. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki defended the trade during an interview on Fox News.

JEN PSAKI: Was it worth it? Absolutely. We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas—or serving in our military, defending our national security every day, that we’re going to do everything to bring them home if we can. And that’s what we did in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Others have raised different questions as Sergeant Bergdahl faces charges of desertion and the very rare charge of misbehavior before the enemy. Reporter Peter Maass wrote for The Intercept, quote, "What punishment should Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl receive for allegedly deserting his post in Afghanistan? The answer comes by asking another question: What punishment has been handed out to American generals and politicians whose incompetence caused far more bloodshed and grief than anything Bergdahl did?"

Well, for more, we’re joined by Matthew Hoh, a former marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September of 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, he served in Iraq. He’s now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Last June, he wrote a piece for Politico headlined "Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl: He and his parents have suffered enough—like all of us veterans." Matthew Hoh now joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! So, Matthew, we haven’t spoken since the Army has charged Bowe Bergdahl with these two counts—desertion and this rare charge that we were just speaking with Eugene Fidell, his attorney, about, desertion before the enemy. Your response?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, good morning, Amy, and thank you for having me back on. My response is along the same lines that I’ve been saying for almost 10 months now, of give this time, no rush to judgment. Why are we vilifying and crucifying a young man who suffered at the hands of the enemy for five years, and, even more so, persecuting his family, as well, just to really score political points?

With regard to the most recent developments with Sergeant Bergdahl, the most important aspect of all this is the fact, as Mr. Fidell was just explaining, the Army’s investigation has found that Sergeant Bergdahl did not intend to desert permanently. He didn’t intend to quit the war or quit the Army or join the Taliban or walk to China, but that his intention was to try and get to another base to report some kind of wrongdoing, something disturbing, to a senior military officer or to an American general. Something had bothered his conscience. Something had bothered his standards as a soldier, that he felt that this was the only option he had, to travel overland—admittedly, a pretty crazy option, and obviously one that didn’t work out so well, as everyone knows. But that is what the Army has found, that this is not a case of classic desertion, but of a young man who was disturbed by something, possibly war crimes, some kind of wrongdoing, something immoral maybe, and that he took it upon himself to report this to his senior officers, because he had no faith in the soldiers he was stationed with anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the book Military Justice: A Guide to the Issues by Lawrence Morris, Article 99, misbehavior before the enemy, essentially criminalizes a soldier’s inability to overcome fear to carry out their duty. Do you think Bowe Bergdahl was afraid?

MATTHEW HOH: No, obviously not, Amy, if he was willing to communicate with his squad leader or his team leader about this beforehand and then actually carry out this action. If we go back to information we know about this already, most of which comes from the Rolling Stone article published by Michael Hastings and Matt Farwell, we see that he actually asked his team leader, "What would happen to me if I went off base with my weapons and other serialized gear—so, my night vision goggles and other equipment the Army has issued to me?" And the team leader said, "You’ll get in trouble." And so, that is, to me, the reason why he went off base without that equipment. So this was a plan he had. He obviously felt that he had no other possibility, no other option. And so, for him to do that, to go overland in eastern Afghanistan to try and report this disturbing circumstances, as the Army says he was trying to do, required quite a bit of bravery.

And with regard to this misbehavior before the enemy charge, a lot of us who are in the veteran community have never heard of that before. Obviously it’s an actual part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it’s something that is extremely rare. And if you google it—I invite people to go and google it and look—and you’ll see there’s nine sections to this possible charge. And really, it’s a catch-all. You know, if somebody doesn’t have their boots tied properly while in their fighting position, that could be construed as misbehavior before the enemy. It really is a catch-all that can be applied to really any circumstances. So, certainly I would imagine that if you were to say, like, he left the base, well, he left the base without permission, that’s misbehavior before the enemy, so I guess you could say that he is in violation of that.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of Bergdahl’s father, Bob, speaking in a video produced last year by The Guardian.

BOB BERGDAHL: How can we teach two generations, at least, of children in this country that we have zero tolerance for violence, but we can occupy two countries in Asia for almost a decade? It’s schizophrenic. And no wonder this younger generation is struggling psychologically with the duplicity of this, the use of violence. The purpose of war is to destroy things. You can’t use it to govern.

AMY GOODMAN: You are friendly with the family. How did you come to know the family, Matthew? And what about what Bob is saying here, Bowe Bergdahl’s father?

MATTHEW HOH: Yeah, I got to know Bob via Twitter, and we developed a friendship, you know, talking on the phone or Skyping. And then we actually had dinner together, along with—the first time, I met Jani, as well, Bowe’s mom—just a few nights, actually, before Bowe was released. So I think it was a Thursday evening we had dinner together in Washington, D.C. And, you know, Amy, like a lot of guys who have been in these wars, you’ve seen a lot of suffering, a lot of grief. But I had never seen anything like I saw in Sergeant Bergdahl’s mother’s eyes that night. This is a woman whose son was being held as a prisoner of war, who was—at that point, I don’t think they understood the horrors that which he was going through in terms of the constant psychological and physical torture he endured, but they certainly knew he was suffering, and they were unsure if they would ever see him again. And I had never seen anything like that in a mother’s eyes. Like I said, I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I’ve seen a lot of suffering and grief of mothers who have buried their sons way too early. But I had never seen anything like I had seen in Jani’s eyes that night.

And I think that is what is so touching about what Bob is saying in those comments. These are two people. These are a husband and wife who raised two children, raised them well, raised them in the spirit of their church, who had their son join the Army, and their suffering has been unreal, unknown to really anyone in this country. You have to go back to the Vietnam era to understand the suffering that they must have endured, in the sense of will we ever see our sons again, will we ever—what tortures must they be experiencing. But what Bob says there about the duplicity of it, the duplicity of this nation, the fact that in church we can bemoan violence, we cite we are a Christian nation, but we regularly ignore Jesus’ call to peace, while we maintain 600 military bases around the world, while we occupy countries, while we conduct wars, while we bomb nations, while we support other nations that bomb nations—you know, this past week with Saudi Arabia’s and other nations’ attacks into Yemen, that’s fully supported by the United States. We’re providing targeting information, in-flight refueling, logistic support. So, I think Bob’s words carry a lot of weight from the kind of man he is, the principled man he is, his experiences as a father who sent his son to war, as well, then, too, as a man of the church and as a man who has seen this both from a philosophical level and from a practical level.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2012, the Rolling Stone magazine published a series of emails from Bowe Bergdahl to his father, Bob. This was the piece you referenced with the late Michael Hastings. Three days before he was captured, Bowe wrote, quote, "The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting. ... I am sorry for everything here. 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." In that email, he also referred to seeing an Afghan child run over by a U.S. military vehicle. So, can you talk more about what he was trying to do—what we were discussing with Eugene Fidell—to report misdoing to a higher-level general at another military post?

MATTHEW HOH: Yes. And again, this is not the defense team. This is not Sergeant Bergdahl saying what his intentions were. This was a team of, as Eugene Fidell explained, 22 investigators working for many, many months, interviewing everyone involved to determine that he left his—Sergeant Bergdahl left his post to report disturbing circumstances, which may have been wrongdoing, which may be related to the death of this child, which will most likely be related to his views of his unit, his shame at the actions he has seen there. So, we may have—very possibly, this may be a story of a young man obeying his conscience, obeying the standards of the Army and trying to tell the truth, trying to report wrongdoing, who then was captured en route to trying to do—on his mission, and then held in captivity for five years, tortured, and then come home to the most disgraceful and shameful attacks to score political points by the media, by politicians. And I will say that while the Republicans tend to be leading these assaults against Sergeant Bergdahl, I’m not hearing a lot of Democratic voices, Democratic politicians, speaking up in defense of this young man or his family. So, I think it’s shameful, not just the attacks, but also the silence that has occurred over his treatment, the lack of men and women willing to stand up and defend him and his family.


MATTHEW HOH: But—go ahead, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to ask you, finally—last week, President Obama reversed course and announced he’s going to keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan at least through the end of the year, and downplayed the extension, saying it would be well worth it. I wanted to ask you, Matthew—you quit over the war in Afghanistan. That was back in 2009. This is, what, six years later. It is the longest war in U.S. history. Your response?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, it’s also, too, Amy, the most unpopular war in U.S. history. We see around four out of five Americans opposed to this war. As many Americans think the war has been a mistake since 2001 as think it was worth it. And what we’ve seen occur in Afghanistan, and which I think was really quite striking, last week, President Ashraf Ghani, the new president of Afghanistan, who stole his elections in such a manner that the ballots have never been released—we don’t even know how many people voted in total, the theft was so great in Afghanistan in those elections. He’s surrounded by the same warlords and drug lords that Hamid Karzai surrounded himself with. The Taliban is stronger than it’s ever been. Record numbers of security forces and record numbers of civilians are killed every year. And the only thing that’s doing well in Afghanistan is the drug trade, something that the Afghan government is heavily involved in. Every year there are bumper crops of poppies in Afghanistan. So, somehow President Obama thinks that it’s worthwhile to continue propping up this government, while millions of Afghan people suffer. As I said, tens of thousands, and the report is about—a recent report is that about a quarter-million Afghans have died since 2001 because of this war, that President Obama somehow thinks it’s worth it.

I think, while I am not—while I don’t want to see Sergeant Bergdahl go to trial because of the toll that will take on him and his family, I would like to see a discussion about this war. I would like to see a more open dialogue about this war. And these platitudes and certitudes that come from our officials that this war was somehow worth it and that somehow we’ve achieved some level of security from it, I’d like to see that debated in a formal setting. And possibly, as a friend of mine described it, maybe Sergeant Bergdahl’s trial could turn into some type of Scopes monkey trial for our foreign policies and our wars overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matthew Hoh, I want to thank you for being with us. And by the way, while Fox News had said, citing unnamed government officials, that three of the five prisoners released in exchange for Bergdahl had attempted to reach out to their former militant networks, a State Department official disputed the account, saying, quote, "none of the five individuals has returned to the battlefield and none of the five have left Qatar. Since their transfer many actions have been taken to restrict the actions of these individuals, and they are all being closely monitored by the United States and Qatar."

Matthew Hoh, thanks so much for being with us. Matthew Hoh is a former marine, State Department official, who resigned in protest of the war in Afghanistan in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, he served in Iraq. He’s now a fellow at the Center for International Policy. We’ll link to your piece that you wrote called "Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl: He and his parents have suffered enough—like all of us veterans."

When we come back, we’ll find out what’s happening in Lausanne, Switzerland, around the talks around an Iran nuclear deal. Stay with us.

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