The Obama administration is seeking to contain a congressional backlash over a prisoner exchange that saw the release of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders. On Wednesday, top intelligence and military officials held a closed-door briefing for the entire Senate showing them a recent video of Bergdahl in declining health. The administration says the video helped spur action to win his release over fears his life was in danger. Opponents of the deal say the White House failed to give Congress proper notice, and may have endangered American lives by encouraging the capture of U.S. soldiers. The criticism has exploded as news spread through right-wing media that Bergdahl may have left his base after turning against the war. We are joined by Brock McIntosh, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War who served in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009. McIntosh applied for conscientious objector status and was discharged last month.
AMY GOODMAN: As this controversy brews, it’s on so many different levels. You’ve got the controversial prisoner swap and the whole issue of is this leading to the closing of Guantánamo, and then you’ve got Bowe Bergdahl leaving the base, not really fully understood at this point because we haven’t talked to Bowe Bergdahl. And once he left the base, he was not spoken to again except through Taliban videos of him. The question is being raised: Did he desert? The question is being raised, and he’s been condemned in the mainstream media for his antiwar views.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, well, we’re going to talk more about the Bowe Bergdahl story. We go now to Brock McIntosh in Washington, D.C. He fought with Army National Guard in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009 and was based near where Bergdahl was captured. McIntosh had later applied for conscientious objector status and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Brock McIntosh, welcome back to Democracy Now!
BROCK McINTOSH: Thanks for having me.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your initial reaction to the uproar in Congress and around the country over the prisoner swap with Bowe Bergdahl?
BROCK McINTOSH: Well, you know, you just played a song called “Masters of War,” and there’s a lyric in there where it talks about “you that to hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks, I just want you to know I can see through your masks.” And I think that that’s a perfect description of what we’re seeing in Congress right now, these people who hide behind walls and hide behind desks and are using a POW as a chess piece to win political matches, and that last week used a wounded veteran with nearly 40 years of military service, General Shinseki, as a political chess piece. And so, I think it’s outrageous. We know nothing about the actual circumstances of why exactly Sergeant Bergdahl left. We don’t know what his intentions were. It’s all speculation at this point. All we know for sure is that he was a POW, and he should have been welcomed home.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Brock, tell us where you were in Afghanistan in relation to where Bowe Bergdahl was. You served at the same time, though you didn’t know each other.
BROCK McINTOSH: Sure, Amy. I served in Paktika province initially for six months—that’s where Bowe Bergdahl went missing—spent the last three months in Khost province. Those last three months were when Bowe Bergdahl went missing. He went missing in June 30th, and I left Afghanistan in August 2009.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this whole—the allegations that in the search for Bergdahl, all of these soldiers, several American soldiers, were lost or killed. Only The New York Times, among the commercial media, have really raised the issue that many of these soldiers are being brought out by a Republican political operative and made available to the various media. Your—what you understand about these other soldiers who were killed around the same time while Bergdahl was in captivity?
BROCK McINTOSH: Right. So, I think the story that’s being told in the media makes it seem as though, you know, there was a unit that received—that was briefed about some rescue mission, and they went out on this rescue mission to locate and extract Sergeant Bergdahl, and six people died in the process. That’s really not the case. Bergdahl went missing on June 30th. Those six soldiers that died died two months later in four separate missions, and it’s not clear to what extent those missions had anything to do with searching for Bergdahl. They certainly weren’t rescue missions. I mean, one of them—one of those deaths involved an American soldier being killed supporting an Afghan National Security Force mission. That’s not a rescue mission. And, you know, we don’t know why exactly these six soldiers died.
There’s all sorts of things that could explain it. Let’s not forget that summer season is fighting season in Afghanistan. It could have been that they died in late August and early September because it was late in the summer, and it was right before the winter, and attacks always ramp up at that time of the year. It could also be explained by the fact that in 2009 the Obama administration initiated this protracted counterinsurgency campaign and a surge in Afghanistan. So there’s all sorts of different things that could explain why these soldiers died. And I think it’s unfair to assert that Bergdahl went missing, and therefore these soldiers died.
And another thing also, in Bergdahl’s unit, they had gone a few months without any fatalities. The first fatality was five days before Bergdahl went missing. So it could have just been that he happened to have gone missing at a time when there were increased attacks and people were being killed. What’s unfortunate is that he is being used, again, as a political chess piece in a political game, and conservatives are using the allegations of soldiers in his unit to imply that this man wasn’t a hero, and therefore President Obama is not a hero for bringing this soldier home.
AMY GOODMAN: Looking at BuzzFeed describing who Juan was just talking about, this former Bush administration official, hired, then resigned, Mitt Romney foreign policy spokesperson, played a key role in publicizing critics of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The involvement of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush, the—to, rather, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, later worked for Romney’s campaign.
I wanted to go back, though, to 2009, to the soldiers who Bowe Bergdahl worked with in that tiny outpost that they built in Afghanistan. We had Sean Smith on a few days ago, a Guardian videographer and photographer who produced a film back in 2009, as well as one when he went to Idaho and met Bowe’s father, Bob Bergdahl, which we also played, and I encourage people to go to democracynow.org to see all of that. Sean Smith spent a month embedded with Bowe Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan. In this clip, we hear from some of the soldiers stationed with Bowe.
SOLDIER 1: These people just want to be left alone.
SOLDIER 2: Yeah, they got dicked with—they got dicked with from the Russians for 17 years, and then now we’re here.
SOLDIER 1: Same thing in Iraq when I was there. These people just want to be left alone, have their crops, weddings, stuff like that. That’s it, man.
SOLDIER 2: I’m glad they leave them alone.
SEAN SMITH: A few weeks later, Bowe Bergdahl, pictured in this photo, disappeared. The circumstances are unclear.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s from the 2009 video for The Guardian produced by Sean Smith. Michael Hastings would further write about that, the late reporter for Rolling Stone. Brock, can you talk about your feelings when you were in Afghanistan, what was happening there? We’ve seen the emails that Michael Hastings wrote about in Rolling Stone of Bowe to his parents, talking about his disillusionment with the war. What were your thoughts and the thoughts of other soldiers? Sean Smith, the reporter for The Guardian, said it was not unusual, more so among Americans than British soldiers in Afghanistan, to be highly critical of what was happening.
BROCK McINTOSH: You know, it’s really hard—it was really hard to hear that clip, Amy, because it reminded me so much of the conversations that I had while I was in Afghanistan. There was so much talk about—within my unit, about these Afghan people and how they just want to be left alone. And we were all aware of the role that the U.S. played during the Cold War, using the Afghan people as a proxy to get back at the Soviet Union, using the lives of Afghans as political chess pieces and gamesmanship. And so, to then be in Afghanistan to help people felt—to help the Afghan people felt very disingenuous. And we never had any clear sense exactly why we were there, what it was that we’re supposed to be doing, why these people are shooting at us, who was shooting at us, who are we shooting at, why are we shooting at them.
And it really eats away at you, and it becomes a situation where all you want to do is you just want to come home, and you want your buddies on your left and your right to come home. And it’s—you know, what are you supposed to do in a situation where you find yourself—you find yourself in a conflict that you don’t agree with, where people are dying on both sides? At what—you know, what are you supposed to do? What recourse do you have? You know, I didn’t know that the conscientious objector process existed. That’s one recourse you could take, but I didn’t know that that existed. There’s an overwhelming lack of awareness that there’s a formal process where you—when you have a conscientious shift, you can actually leave the military.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And even your commanders at times are not aware of these options. Could you talk about that, confronting your own commander about—or your sense that you wanted to go into conscientious objector status?
BROCK McINTOSH: Right. When I initially applied, it threw my commander off guard. I actually applied on the very first day in my new unit, and so my commander was thrown off guard both because it was my first day meeting him and also because he didn’t think that that process was possible. You can’t just leave because you morally disagree with war. But it turns out you can. And to his credit, he read about the regulations, and he actually drafted a document that we signed together saying I didn’t have to study, use or bear arms.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, what did that mean? Where were you, Brock?
BROCK McINTOSH: Well, I had applied actually after about a year or so after I had come home. And I transferred from an Illinois National Guard unit to a D.C. state unit, and that’s when I applied.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was that process you went through? You started serving in, what, November 2008. You were in Afghanistan ’til August 2009.
BROCK McINTOSH: Right, I started—I started serving in November, August '08. And like so many soldiers, I wanted nothing more but to just make this war work and to help the Afghan people. And again, it became increasingly frustrated when you didn't know why you were there, and you didn’t why these people were shooting at you or who you were supposed to be—or why you were shooting, and who you were shooting. And I wanted to make the war work. And so, in that process of trying to make the war work, I started reading about the history and culture of Afghanistan, just like Bowe’s father did. And like Bowe, it became really discomforting to learn about the relationship that the U.S. has had with that country for the past 30 years and all of the problems that it’s created for the past 30 years.
And, you know, there were certain firsthand experiences I had that were unnerving, like seeing a 16-year-old bomb maker get blown up. He came to our base to be treated, and we took turns babysitting his body in one-hour shifts. And I was alone with him in this room, thinking how crazy it is that me, as a 20-year-old, and this 16-year-old are being sent to kill each other by these adults for these ideologies that we don’t quite understand. And, you know, it’s just a sad situation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, according to Rolling Stone magazine, Bergdahl sent a final email to his parents on June 27th, three days before he was captured. He 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.” Quote, “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. The horror that is America is disgusting.” In that email, he also referred to seeing an Afghan child run over by a U.S. military vehicle. Your reaction to some of those words?
BROCK McINTOSH: You know, well, I want to react to one thing, to one aspect of that statement, and that was about lies. You know, we were lied—we, as veterans, were lied to about the Iraq War. We were lied to by the Bush administration, and with the endorsement of Congress, we went into Iraq. Nearly 5,000 American soldiers were killed, well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, based on that lie. And, you know, there’s been a lot of talk over the last few months about a lie that was told at the Phoenix VA Hospital about these secret waiting lists, and I find it really ironic that Congress is so obsessed about figuring out who lied at the Phoenix VA Hospital and the circumstances of that lie that are connected to the deaths of 40 veterans, when a lie that they told killed nearly 5,000 American soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. And what they’re doing is they’re trying to defer blame from themselves. Congress is the reason that we have waiting lists. Congress is the reason that we deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and deployed over two million veterans and have this influx of veterans that are fighting to get VA healthcare.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting you raise this, Brock, because last week at this time, everyone, nonstop, across all of the media, was talking about whether General Shinseki would resign and about the horror of the VA, the waits that people have when they come home from war, one to two years. And within two days, then that is all wiped off of the face of the media, and this is the controversy that takes its place. But you see these as connected.
BROCK McINTOSH: Well, I’m not sure if they’re connected. It could be that this happened at a time when the Obama administration anticipated General Shinseki stepping down. I don’t know. But I see a connection in Congress’s willingness to exploit other people’s service for political gamesmanship. Last week, they scapegoated General Shinseki, a veteran—a wounded veteran who served for nearly 40 years. They scapegoated him to defer blame from themselves and the role that they played in creating these wait lists and failing—failing to prepare for the costs of veterans coming home. When we went to Iraq and we went to Afghanistan, they did not set aside the necessary funds that would be required to care for our veterans to come home and to make the systematic changes that would need to be made. So the Congress played a huge role in creating those wait lists and the problems that the VA is facing, and they scapegoated a veteran last week. And this week, they’re now taking advantage of a POW and using him for political games, and it’s pretty sick, and it’s pretty disgusting, and it’s pretty shameful.
AMY GOODMAN: Brock, finally, did you ever get conscientious objector status?
BROCK McINTOSH: I didn’t get conscientious objector status. You know, the process for our reserve soldiers, it’s supposed to take about six months, three months for active soldiers. But the process is always—you know, there are always obstacles and barriers in the process. You know, you always have to butt heads with officers. They lose your paperwork. You really need to have legal assistance in order to get CO status, because the process is so difficult.
And so, I think that if—you know, if more veterans were aware, more soldiers were aware that the CO process exists, and if there were reforms made to the CO process, we may not have had a situation where a soldier had a conscientious change of heart and left—and, you know, left his post, because he didn’t realize that there were formal recourses of actions that he could have taken. Not saying that—not saying that that’s the reason why Sergeant Bergdahl left—we don’t know. But the point is, is I think that we could avoid potential situations like this if we reform the CO process and if more soldiers are made aware that that process exists.
AMY GOODMAN: Brock McIntosh, we want to thank you so much for being with us, a soldier who served in Afghanistan in 2008 and '09, applied for conscientious objector status and was discharged in May of 2014. He's a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the first Socialist city councilmember of Seattle, Washington, who pushed for and ultimately got passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle. Stay with us.