Postcard — July 30, 2014, 6:38 pm

My Un-Private Idaho

Bowe Bergdahl, the political-entertainment complex, and the personal costs of scandal

Fox & Friends, June 6, 2014

Fox & Friends, Friday, June 6, 2014

At the annual Fourth of July celebrations in Hailey, Idaho, normalcy prevailed. Cowboys competing in the Days of the Old West Rodeo rode broncos with names like Comanche and Spirit, and a Mormon pastor asked God to protect American troops stationed overseas. At the Independence Day Parade, Olympic high-jumping legend and State Senate candidate Dick Fosbury waved from the back of a sparkling blue 1936 Ford convertible, and families waved back from camping chairs they had set out along Main Street the day before.

Conspicuously absent throughout was any mention — by anyone near a microphone, at least — of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. “I don’t think that any city wants to be judged on the good or bad actions of one single individual,” said Mayor Fritz Haemmerle when I asked him about it later. “The city of Hailey is not Bowe-Bergdahl-ville.”

True. But for nearly five years, Bergdahl was the town’s common cause. I lived in the area for about a decade, and was working there as a magazine editor when he went missing in 2009. Hailey is the seat of Blaine County, a rugged stretch of high-desert and alpine country that spreads about 20,000 people across an area larger than the state of Delaware. The mountain towns where Bergdahl grew up are isolated and intimate. People pick up the weekly newspaper to clip supermarket coupons and read the classified section’s semi-anonymous gossip. (“K, for a girl that loves to dance, your tattooed dud of a boyfriend would not move at the Franti concert . . . time to dump him.”) For half a decade, “Bring Bowe Home” decals were a fixture in Hailey — at the auto-parts store, on restaurant doors and camper-van windows — and the trees lining Main Street wore yellow ribbons in Bergdahl’s honor, replaced every Memorial Day by local scout troops. Residents could trace the passing of time since Bergdahl was captured by the growth of his father’s beard.

On Saturday, May 31, a video of Bergdahl’s release was broadcast to the world by the Taliban. In the footage, he emerges from the backseat of an extended-cab pickup truck, wearing a traditional white tunic and a woven shawl that, according to a Taliban commander later interviewed by Time, can also be worn as a turban. The traditional garb was a parting gift, the commander said. “We wanted him to return home with good memories.”

Jane Drussel, the president of Hailey’s chamber of commerce and the owner of the city’s largest stationery shop, learned of Bergdahl’s release in a text message from one of her employees at 8 A.M. that morning. “Of course my immediate thought was, ‘Wow, we need to let the community know,’ ” she said. “I ran down to the store and called the girls and said, ‘Take the picture we have of Bowe and make a little eleven-by-seventeen poster that says that Bowe has been released and we’ll put them up around town.’ ”

As the posters went up, and the cars on Main Street began honking their excitement, the complicating factors of the release — that Bergdahl had been exchanged for five bearded Muslims, that some of his fellow soldiers had accused him of desertion, and that his parents were Christians who had prayed for, and openly appealed to the religious mercy of, their son’s Muslim captors — started seeping into the national consciousness. Later that day, as the media debated the optics of Bergdahl’s father offering the Islamic blessing of peace, in Arabic, to his son from the White House Rose Garden, Hailey was of a different mind. “The only thing that our community cared about,” said Drussel, “was that that son of these people, who were a huge part of our community, was no longer a prisoner of war.”

The day after the prisoner exchange, a headline in the New York Times read, “Planned Celebration for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Just Got a Whole Lot Bigger.” Correspondents who had covered the story since 2009 returned to Hailey and descended on Sue Martin’s coffee shop, where Bergdahl had worked before joining the Army, to cover the feel-good angles. “Media people were giving me big hugs,” said Martin, adding that some were in tears. Camera crews hit Main Street to get shots of the fresh ribbons and Drussel’s posters, and to capture quotes expressing cheer and relief.

By Monday, though, it had become clear that the politics of war, the business of politics, and the seductions of an election-year scandal were converging, and the media in New York got to work on their own angles. In the absence of information, free-associative suspicions filled the airwaves. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly told his 2,658,000 viewers that Bowe’s father “looks like a Muslim.” Later that week, he generously offered that, while “Sergeant Bergdahl and his father appear to be Taliban sympathizers . . . they should be given the benefit of every doubt.” O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and national-security correspondent Jennifer Griffin even took to mispronouncing the family’s name with an occidental inflection, as “berg-DAAHL.” The New York office of the Daily Mail, the world’s most-visited news website, posted some of the earliest articles alleging that Robert Bergdahl had Taliban sympathies. The site also scrutinized the family’s hunting activities and history of home-schooling, and published a photo caption ridiculing their modest home.

On Tuesday, emails and calls started pouring into Hailey’s city hall and chamber of commerce, and to any business that had been caught on camera appearing too happy about Bergdahl’s release. “You people are human garbage to honor this disgusting misfit,” read one email sent to the city administrator. “The only welcome he deserves is to be hung in a public square. . . . The parents deserve the same treatment,” read another. Drussel’s and Martin’s business phones rang throughout Tuesday and Wednesday with harassing calls.

Three emails sent to municipal addresses so alarmed the city’s police chief, Jeff Gunter, that he forwarded them to the FBI. One of them read: “As a Vietnam Era Veteran, I hope this Mother Fu**** comes back to your town, strapped with explosives and blows up the city council. . . . What an absolute shame, to watch on National TV, this bitch, saying she was a friend of his, and we need to wait for the facts.”

The reporters who’d come to Idaho pivoted to the new story. “I was asked, with a microphone thrust in my face, ‘Is he a traitor?’ ” Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen told me. Schoen fielded calls that week from every conceivable news outlet, from southern Idaho’s Twin Falls Times-News to NPR to the French Nouvel Observateur. Satellite trucks filled the gravel parking lot outside Martin’s coffee shop. “There were so many electrical cords going across to their vehicles,” she said, “I couldn’t water the lawn for twelve days or I’d kill somebody.”

Soon Gunter fielded calls from attorneys claiming to represent veterans’ organizations in California and Texas. When he heard that each group wanted to bring 2,000 protesters to the celebration party, he foresaw disaster. “I believe they were actually going to come,” he told me. The city encouraged the event’s organizers to cancel the celebration, which led to a fresh headline on the Drudge Report, and to another wave of vitriol.

“I stopped using the word ‘facts,’ ” said Schoen. “We don’t know the facts. There are many things people are asserting as facts that haven’t been established.”

We still have no definitive account of what happened after Bergdahl, then a private, disappeared from infantry outpost Mest Malak in the early hours of June 30, 2009. A man claiming to be one of his captors later told the Sunday Times that he had been spotted walking into a village with an Afghan soldier. A group of Taliban gunmen were reportedly alerted; they killed the Afghan soldier, then struck Bergdahl in the face with a rifle butt and apprehended him. American intelligence records offer different stories, many of which informed the most thorough account to date, a 2012 Rolling Stone article by the late Michael Hastings.

But even Hastings’s version has its gaps and inconsistencies. One of the first radio messages intercepted the day Bergdahl went missing said, “An American solider with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English.” This tidbit, first reported by Hastings, has been widely presented as evidence that Bergdahl defected. But the writer Robert Young Pelton, who was in eastern Afghanistan in the days after Bergdahl went missing, wrote on Vice’s website last week that this intelligence was based on a faulty translation. According to Pelton, it was the kidnappers, not Bergdahl, who were looking for a camera and an English-speaker, because they needed to make a hostage tape.

The day after Bergdahl disappeared, American intelligence operatives picked up another radio conversation that casts doubt on the “willing defection” narrative and that, in light of Pelton’s reporting, seems to support the simpler theory of a kidnapping. In the conversation, one Taliban fighter tells another that when they found Bergdahl, he “was sitting taking [shit] he had no gun with him. He was taking [shit], he has not cleaned his butt yet,” one man says. “What [shame] for them,” says the second.

In the first days after the swap, the Pentagon stated forcefully that Bergdahl was not directly responsible for any American military deaths. An investigation by the New York Times backs up those statements, as does Pelton’s reporting. FoxNews.com acknowledged as much, too, in an article confirming that two soldiers who were killed while the Bergdahl search was under way had not died while on patrol.

1 Grenell and his partner, Brad Chase, have defended themselves against accusations that their work with the soldiers was politically motivated. “Like Bart Simpson on chalkboard,” Chase tweeted, “I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Republican. I just work with a  famous one.” Chase also wrote that the media tour was “pro bono” with “no money changing hands,” though it remains unknown how the six soldiers’ last-minute travel to New York was funded. Neither Grenell nor Chase responded to my questions about their media tour.
2 In the week after the prisoner exchange, the Pentagon confirmed (and Fox News reported) that Bergdahl had made at least two escape attempts while in captivity. A 2011 Daily Beast story by veteran reporter Sami Yousafzai about one of the attempts quotes an Afghan insurgent, Haniz Hanif, who said that Bergdahl had been gone two nights and three days, and that he’d been found nearly naked, hiding under leaves in a shallow ditch he had dug with his hands. According to Hanif, it took at least five militants to subdue Bergdahl.

The FoxNews.com article went online the day after nearly 3 million people tuned in to watch Megyn Kelly conduct an exclusive interview with six of Bergdahl’s former platoon mates. The soldiers had been flown to New York for a media tour arranged by the Republican communications strategist Richard Grenell.1 “He doesn’t seem like a captive,” said medic Joshua Cornelison of Bergdahl’s proof-of-life videos. “He seems like someone who is potentially enjoying himself.” Bergdahl’s former roommate, Cody Full, criticized Bergdahl for appearing in the videos at all. “I would have done everything I had to do,” Full said, “cursing them, trying to escape, swinging on them, trying to steal a gun, shoot them . . . I’m not gonna be a propaganda piece so my family can see me on the Internet.”2

Fox paired the soldiers’ sit-down with a stunning coup de grâce, proclaiming on its website and its shows, “EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show.” The report was based entirely on intelligence reports provided to Fox by a former private defense contractor, The Eclipse Group, which Fox reporter James Rosen described as “a shadowy private firm of former intelligence officers and operatives.” Unmentioned in Rosen’s piece or anywhere on Fox’s many platforms was that Eclipse CEO Duane “Dewey” Clarridge has a long history of lying to the government, and that, as Pelton discovered, Clarridge’s reports declare that they are “not a finished intelligence product.”

With its week-ending scoops, Fox completed a narrative arc of treason and disgrace that left its audience — and the audience of the many outlets and blogs that cite Fox as an authority — at its agitated peak.

Sue Martin, who had been a visible part of the Bergdahl story since the summer of 2009, when the family first asked her to speak on their behalf, suddenly found herself being called “a Taliban sympathizer” on her store’s Facebook page. One day, a man in his sixties paid the establishment a visit, waited for the other customers to leave, and leaned into her face to launch a verbal assault on her assumed politics. By week’s end, she’d been similarly accosted by two more men. For the first time in her life, Martin was concerned about being seen in public. The media correspondents camped out in her parking lot, she said, “were apologizing to me personally for what the media was doing.” But they also needed access to her electrical outlets and Wi-Fi, and when the unrelenting combination of harassment and press demands convinced Martin to close shop, she offered her keys to one of the journalists outside. “I have no idea who I gave them to,” she said.

The Hailey residents and merchants I spoke with all conveyed disgust and outrage to varying degrees. Mayor Haemmerle tried to place the trauma in broader context. “What are you supposed to do when people express themselves?” he asked me. “It’s the United States of America.” By Friday, less than a week after the prisoner release, the FBI was investigating multiple death threats against Bergdahl’s family.

After enduring all of this, the people of Hailey were warier of a reporter with a notebook than I remembered from years past. Jane Drussel told me, in about five different rhetorical formulations, that people were moving on, while Sue Martin said, “It’s almost like it didn’t happen.” Perhaps this was necessary decompression after the frenzy, a defensive reaction to the torrent of hate, or just the natural flow of time and memory. But evidence of a chill was plain. People spoke to me about Bergdahl in low voices, as if about a death. The mayor described it as “a sad time.” By mid-July, the ribbons on Main Street had nearly all come down.

And the media still lurked: a reporter and a photographer from the Daily Mail had been around, and CNN filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against Blaine County to release a fifteen-year-old police record that mentions the Bergdahls. Some corners of the media remained obsessed with why Bergdahl “wouldn’t talk to his parents,” as if the press were due a formal release when two private citizens spoke.

Bergdahl has completed his psychological reintegration and has been given a vaguely described desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. An Army investigation into the details of his capture has begun, but no timeline on its duration has been set. One of the few concrete facts we know about the former prisoner is this: upon his return to American military custody, he requested peanut butter.

Everyone I spoke with in Hailey was clear on this point: Bowe Bergdahl still has a home in Idaho. “People have said it’s obvious that he’s a deserter. People have said it’s obvious that he is a traitor,” Schoen told me. “There is nothing about this story that is obvious.”

 “If the investigation allows him to come back here, I think we are a fair-minded people,” said Mayor Haemmerle. “That is what the West is all about. That’s why people came out here originally, to live their lives. Hopefully people can live their lives.”

Share
Single Page
has been contributing to Harper’s Magazine since the April 2013 issue. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

More from Michael Ames:

Context October 2, 2015, 11:04 am

Captive Markets

Why we won’t get prison reform

From the February 2015 issue

Captive Market

Why we won’t get prison reform

Perspective August 23, 2013, 2:32 pm

On Rand Paul’s War on the War on Drugs

How the junior senator from Kentucky motivated the Obama Administration to forgo mandatory minimum sentences

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today