Five Years Gone: What Bowe Bergdahl’s Odyssey Tells Us About the United States’s Endless War in Afghanistan

Nicholas Utzig reviews "American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan" by Matt Farwell and Michael Ames.

Five Years Gone: What Bowe Bergdahl’s Odyssey Tells Us About the United States’s Endless War in Afghanistan

American Cipher by Matt Farwell and Michael Ames. Penguin Press. 400 pages.

IN BOOK IX of Homer’s Odyssey, the reader finds Odysseus recounting the early days of what will become his 10-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Trapped in the Cyclops’ cave, the Greek warrior devises an audacious plan to escape. He blinds the Cyclops and sneaks out of confinement with his crew. As they row out to sea, the sailors hear the rage-fueled cries of the blinded Cyclops as the creature demands to know the author of his fate.

Unable to resist, Odysseus taunts him: “[I]f any man on the face of the earth should ask you / who blinded you, who shamed you so — say Odysseus.” And he does, raising a curse to Poseidon, “god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth,” asking that Odysseus “find a world of pain at home.” Odysseus’ life thereafter is complicated by this act of hubris, the reckless decision to reveal his identity to the Cyclops.

While returning home from modern war is considerably faster, it can feel Odyssean. For American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, the journey can take weeks. First, a trip from a small outpost to a larger one, where a unit consolidates and soldiers wait for a helicopter to take them to Bagram, the largest American air base in the country. More waiting at Bagram, this time for a flight to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. From there a bus to another camp in Kuwait. More waiting. Then a bus back to Ali Al Salem. More waiting. Finally, the flight home. At least that’s how it’s supposed to go, but nothing ever seems to move so smoothly. At the start of the surge in Iraq, to note a notorious example, some units waiting for flights home from Kuwait were ordered back to Iraq for more months of combat, only to begin the whole return process anew.

But for Bowe Bergdahl, the Cyclops’ curse — calling for Odysseus to “come home late […] alone in a stranger’s ship” — became all too real. Bergdahl, the longest-held American POW in the United States’s longest war, has been the subject of renewed public interest, owing in part to the popularity of the Serial podcast series, which devoted its second season to Bergdahl’s ordeal. Much of the attention in the popular press, however, has focused on one central question — why did this young soldier walk off his post and disappear into the Afghan night 10 years ago this June? Matt Farwell and Michael Ames, in their new book American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan, broaden the story beyond this decision. Bergdahl’s odyssey, in Farwell and Ames’s account, is far more complex than his solitary journey may suggest. The young soldier’s ordeal, the authors contend, offers a glimpse into the dysfunctional and unending prosecution of the United States’s longest war.

US Army Private Bergdahl arrived in Afghanistan by a circuitous route. Bored and listless in Idaho, the young man yearned for a life of adventure, but his enthusiasm occasionally outstripped his capacity. Seeking a romantic life of action abroad, Bergdahl traveled to Paris and attempted to join the French Foreign Legion. His thirst for adventure may have gotten the better of him. He failed to enlist and found himself astonished by life abroad. “He hadn’t anticipated, for instance, that everyone would be speaking French.” A disastrous 26 days in the US Coast Guard followed. Undeterred, Bergdahl enlisted in the Army as an infantryman, and found himself deployed to Afghanistan’s restive Paktika Province in May 2009. But like Bergdahl's brief trip to France, the war in Afghanistan didn’t quite match his expectations. He found himself frustrated with his leaders and confused about the war’s ultimate purpose.

Angered by what Farwell and Ames accurately call the “impossible contradiction” that characterizes American counterinsurgency doctrine, Bergdahl decided to walk away from his post. “This wasn’t the war story Bergdahl had written for himself, so he decided to write his own.” After slipping into the Afghan night on June 29, 2009, he would not see another American until his release five years later.

Bergdahl was fated to become the subject of a series of competing and often contradictory narratives, and much of American Cipher works to unbraid the tales. Members of Bergdahl’s unit had their story, American politicians had another, the Taliban yet another. Then a new narrative emerges: competing American military and intelligence agencies, each seemingly more interested in self-aggrandizement than cooperation. Time and resources are wasted searching for Bergdahl in Afghanistan even as the best available intelligence suggested he had been moved across the border into Pakistan. Instead of acknowledging this reality and as “the searches carried on past the time when military and government leadership knew that Bergdahl was almost certainly in Pakistan,” Farwell and Ames note, “the Army began focusing on information control.”

Certain outlets of American political media pushed a different story: Bergdahl had joined the Taliban. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters took to the Fox News airwaves and accused Bergdahl of desertion, claiming that he was “collaborating with the enemy.” Neither of these claims were true. Rumor filled the void of the unknown.

Captured and turned over to the Haqqani network, a terrorist syndicate that operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bergdahl endured torture for most of his time in captivity. Far from joining the enemy, Bergdahl made several attempts to escape, each resulting in harsher treatment from his furious captors. Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s father began his own search for his son. As Telemachus’ hunt for his father Odysseus took the young man to the courts of Nestor and Menelaus, places where he heard stories of his absent father, Robert Bergdahl spent years of his life collecting of stories about his son. The elder Bergdahl would listen to anyone who might be in a position to offer help, an openness that put him occasionally at odds with authorities in Washington. In Farwell and Ames’s account, Robert Bergdahl emerges as a relentless searcher, calm in almost unbearable situations. He was traveling to Kabul during a critical stage of the secretive final talks to secure his son’s release and was ordered back to the United States before he inadvertently complicated the negotiations. Unaware how close he was to reuniting with his son, Robert Bergdahl returned in despair. He thought he had “abandoned Bowe.” But American Cipher’s praise for Robert Bergdahl’s dedication and Bowe Bergdahl’s bravery in captivity is inseparable from its condemnation of the bureaucratic infighting that has, the book implies, encouraged the war to continue without a defined purpose or robust political debate.

While Farwell and Ames take care to credit some of the painstaking work — of diplomats, intelligence officers, and military service-members — American Cipher paints a dark picture of American military and intelligence services as interested in controlling their own image, regardless of truth, as they are in finding Bergdahl or ending the war.

The misinformation about Bergdahl’s story continued long after his release. After a number of missed opportunities to secure his freedom, the Obama administration authorized a prisoner swap, releasing five detainees from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay without notifying Congress. The political reaction was both immediate and predictable. Smelling a scandal, right-wing media outlets worked overtime to portray the prisoner swap as an illegal executive action that endangered the American homeland. Amid a subdued homecoming for Bergdahl, Farwell and Ames note that the “GOP strategy to leverage Bergdahl and his family against Obama was working as designed.” Weeks after the soldier’s release, they observe, Obama’s disapproval ratings reached “55 percent, the highest of his presidency.” So lasting was the public mistrust sewn by political opportunism that Bergdahl’s release became an issue in the 2016 Republican campaign. “In the old days, when we were strong and wise, we shoot a guy like that,” then-candidate Donald Trump declared with his expected machismo, but no serious discussion of ending the United States’s longest war emerged from any of the televised presidential debates.

While Farwell and Ames offer a humane depiction of a young American enmeshed in a net of contradictory American values and practices, they have little sympathy for the architects of American policy in Afghanistan. Like Odysseus’ taunts to the cyclops, Bergdahl’s act was the mistake of a moment. The strategic mistakes, meanwhile, continue unabated and undebated. While Bergdahl is safely home, the larger calamity documented by American Cipher continues, and the authors lay responsibility for its continuation at the highest levels of America’s political, military, and intelligence organizations. There’s enough blame to go around. The United States’s longest war — nearly absent, Farwell and Ames note, from the political conversation during the 2016 presidential election (a judgment the pair might also apply to the 2018 election cycle) — shows no sign of ending any time soon. The war perpetuates itself out of bureaucratic inertia, a reality American Cipher exposes unreservedly.


Nick Utzig is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Harvard University. He is a former US Army major and an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.

LARB Contributor

Nicholas Utzig is a PhD candidate in the department of English at Harvard University, where his research focuses on representations of soldiers in early modern English drama. A former US Army aviation officer, Nick and his family now live in New York.


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