On June 30, 2009, early in the Obama administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl deserted his station at a remote outpost in Paktika province. He was seized by the Taliban the same day and whisked to Pakistan within a week of his capture. Bergdahl would spend five years in North Waziristan as a prisoner of the Haqqani Network, a group with intimate ties to the Taliban. He would waste away those years alone in dark rooms. Sometimes the guards would switch it up and leave him under stark electrical lighting for nights on end. He was provided with little food, water, or medical care, and he was made to eat with his hands off the same mud floor he slept on. When he wasn’t being tormented by dysentery, he was surviving a myriad of more straightforward tortures like beatings or methodical stabbings in the chest with a razor blade.
Bergdahl’s handoff to US special operations forces on May 31, 2014, was part of an exchange involving the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay. The exchange was intended to bring the United States and the Taliban one step closer to a peaceful resolution, but the murkiness surrounding Bergdahl’s desertion furnished Republicans with an ideal opportunity to depict Barack Obama and the Democrats as appeasers and apologists for treason at the same time—a tactic only accelerated by Donald Trump during and after his presidential campaign.
It didn’t help that members of Bergdahl’s battalion, along with other service members, insisted that Americans were needlessly killed or maimed during the search for him. All this made the subsequent legal proceedings against Bergdahl an ideological lightning rod, up to and including his dishonorable discharge on November 3, 2017, when Trump declared in a tweet that the sentence was a “total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.” The president was appalled that the judge didn’t call for further prison time or (as Trump had hinted at countless rallies) the death penalty.
Although Bergdahl never garnered a base of support even a thousandth the size of his sea of detractors, he has maintained some degree of mass sympathy. This was in large part thanks to season two of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, which began to air about a year and a half after its subject’s homecoming. The series attempted to make a not-so-subtle case that Bergdahl’s explanation for his desertion was likely an honest if harebrained one. That is, he had planned an unauthorized movement from one base to another in the hopes of prompting a large-scale emergency response that would gain the attention of higher-ups. Once such attention was being paid, he would inform the senior brass of what he saw as the reckless shortcomings of his unit leadership.
Serial’s contribution no doubt signaled a refreshing counterpoint to the prevailing jingoism of the moment, but for all its virtues, it still left a fundamentally jingoistic premise intact. It was not just that Koenig gave the impression of agreeing with Republicans that the moral rubric by which Bergdahl should be judged was whether he was a traitor; it was also that she appeared to concur with them that the moral heft of the Bergdahl episode centers on Bergdahl himself rather than the political culture that produced and discarded him.
What makes Matt Farwell and Michael Ames’s American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan so welcome is its spurning of such a hoary framework of understanding. Other trite configurations, like the American captivity narrative, are also declined. As early as the 17th century, Americans have recounted their capture at the hands of indigenous enemies, often affirming rather than rejecting distinctions between white colonial civilization and nonwhite savagery. While the harrowing aspects of Bergdahl’s time in Pakistan are fleshed out, his imprisonment makes up a minor theme, and the book works to do the opposite of the captivity narrative. In its understated but poignant way, American Cipher paints a picture of the United States as a country that has forever been imprisoned by its imperialist impulse to expand.
If the popular conversation has delved into Bergdahl’s personal history at the expense of examining the wider national history he emerged from and would later rebel against, Farwell and Ames use their antihero’s biography to tell more uncomfortable truths about America. Since their text is just as much an analysis of the background conditions that made Bergdahl’s act possible as it is an analysis of the desertion itself, there are sizable chunks in which the protagonist hardly factors in at all.
The first 15 pages cover the history of Operation Cyclone, the CIA program responsible for arming the anti-Soviet mujahideen throughout the 1980s. At an annual price tag of $700 million, it constituted about 80 percent of the CIA’s paramilitary budget. The covert scheme amounted to a massive US-sponsored radicalization campaign, entailing the continual recruitment of young men into violent Islamist networks in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and a nonstop resupply of such holy warriors to the front of the Soviet-Afghan War. A 1989 Army report compared this effort to the Soviet and Chinese strategy to fund, arm, and train anti-American forces in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The refusal of the Russians to learn the right lesson from their great adversary’s earlier mistake, in the US military’s words, “caused them to make many of the same errors” in Afghanistan.
Multilayered irony isn’t the only item on display in the first chapter; it’s accompanied by less obvious but equally damning facts. Early on, the reader learns about the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority, an infrastructure initiative inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority and financed by the Export-Import Bank of the United States. During the first half of the Cold War, the US government tried a softer form of hegemony in southern Afghanistan, building houses, roads, canals, dams, a coed high school, and a Bollywood movie theater in what developers called Little America. The US Agency for International Development contracted out the dam construction to Morrison-Knudsen, an engineering company based in Bergdahl’s home state of Idaho. Strikingly, as Farwell and Ames note, “Southern Idaho, like Afghanistan, is a land of high-mountain rivers flowing into desert plains, and before the state was settled, it too had required hundreds of square miles of irrigation—the federal government had hired Morrison-Knudsen for those as well.”
The authors have much to say about the shocking myopia involved in launching a horizonless war against the very Islamist forces the US government played such a central role in provoking just over a decade prior. But it is their deeper ambition—one that reaches back further than Operation Cyclone or even the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority—that makes their treatment of the Bergdahl saga so compelling. Through an intermittent series of hints and nods, Farwell and Ames suggest that the history of America has always been a history of promising carrots and ruthless sticks, with the latter proving the decisive mode. This has been as true on the western frontier as on the Cold War periphery, and in the pair’s telling, these two spheres come to blur. So do the generations in which these instances of imperial buildup took place.
When a CIA agent offered to hatch an extralegal rescue plot with former Special Forces members, he told Bob and Jani Bergdahl, Bowe’s parents, that the terrain around their southern Idaho home reminded him of the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. The line, which was drawn by the British diplomat Mortimer Durand in 1893 and established the eastern limit of modern Afghanistan, is still not accepted by the Afghan government because it rips asunder historic communities like the Pashtun and the Baloch. Describing the Swat Valley, or the “Switzerland of Pakistan”—a region overrun by the Taliban in 2007—Farwell and Ames mention that its weavers are among those who make cashmere shawls for export, some of which were sold in a bazaar a few blocks from a coffee shop where Bowe Bergdahl worked as a teenager. The authors’ sketching of the transformation of Idaho’s political economy in the second half of the 20th century from rural sheep-based markets to high-end tourism, or “from saddles and wagons to ski boots and goggles,” echo their summary of the attempts at the foreign-imposed modernization of Afghanistan. Without ever making the point explicit, American Cipher interweaves spatially and temporally distinct references so that what would otherwise remain provincial trivia becomes a singular tale of colonial commerce and wreckage.
Farwell and Ames’s reading of Bergdahl is bolstered by their spotlighting of indigenous peoples in the consolidation of the America that created him. He was named after Louis L’Amour’s Texas Ranger hero Chick Bowdrie, a white man brought up by the Comanche in San Antonio. Bergdahl’s father had always held a tremendous respect for the rugged lifestyle of American Indians and hoped to raise his son in their image. Much of this fondness seemed to follow from a typical hankering after masculine self-reliance. “We don’t have safe deposit boxes; we keep ammo boxes,” Bob Bergdahl is quoted saying. But his fascination with Indians, no matter how hackneyed, sparked a more generous curiosity. The family befriended Peruvian Quechuas who shepherded near their homestead, and the Bergdahls supplied their neighbors with packed meals and fishing rods every year. The nomads, not unlike the Kuchis in the Afghan desert that Bowe Bergdahl later patrolled, “followed the same grazing routes as their Basque predecessors had a century before—north to the alpine meadows in the summer, south to the Snake River Plain in the fall.”
Bob Bergdahl’s esteem for Native Americans went beyond their perceived hardiness. During a visit to the Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana, he recounted a story to young Bowe about a US Army raid on a Nez Perce camp in 1877 in which more than 90 indigenous men, women, and children were killed. They were hunted by veterans of the Civil War or campaigns against the Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches. Bob conveyed to his son that the Nez Perce were racing to cross the Medicine Line—their name for the northern edge of the United States, beyond which point their chasers would have no jurisdiction. “They were just trying to get to Canada,” he lamented. When Farwell and Ames discuss counterinsurgency 10 pages later, they make sure to emphasize that the strategy of merging humanitarian outreach toward aboriginals with the sort of conventional tactics of brutal subjugation deployed against the Nez Perce is nothing new. It was used during the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and, of course, the Indian Wars. As the authors describe it, the overall approach equates to telling those the invader seeks to rule, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.”
Resonances of a similar kind can be heard elsewhere in the book. The mascot for Bowe Bergdahl’s unit was none other than the legendary Apache chief Geronimo, and his visage was featured on Bergdahl’s red beret. His battalion became Task Force One Geronimo once it made it to eastern Afghanistan in 2009. When Bergdahl returned to the States in the summer of 2014 after five years in captivity in Pakistan, he was assigned clerical duty at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The base was once a key settlement on the Indian-chasing frontier, and it now housed military hardware like the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter. The location of Bergdahl’s staff job adjoined a quadrangle full of deer, chickens, and blue and albino peacocks. Lore has it that the creatures were similar to those offered to Geronimo to hunt in the 1890s when he was held prisoner there.
Then there were the reverberations of Houston himself, the man the base was named after. Farwell and Ames stay silent on Houston, although his absent presence adds to the overall mood of the book. He had a complicated, often friendly relationship with the Indians of his era, specifically the Cherokee, who granted him tribal citizenship. But the entirety of his legacy as a conquering frontiersman and first president of the Republic of Texas was still in keeping with the empire he served. As Greg Grandin relates in The End of the Myth, Houston, at the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848, riled up a crowd in New York City by claiming all of Mexico as an American “birthright.” It was the job of the US government to “take it,” on the assumption that Mexico would “learn to love her ravishers.”
But perhaps the through line of American violence is best encapsulated in a scene that unfolds in Afghanistan. It is a scene Koenig harps on in Serial, except not in a way that really wrestles with its full metaphorical weight. According to Bergdahl, there were many instances that convinced him that his chain of command was unfit to lead, though one in particular stood out. It began with him and a handful of platoon mates being ordered to dig makeshift bunkers on the top of a hill vulnerable to direct and indirect fire. To add insult to injury, the bunkers being dug would accommodate only a fraction of those assigned to the suicidal observation post. But even that wasn’t the worst of it: During their digging, the battalion commander showed up and lambasted the men for having undressed to their T-shirts and trousers, with their flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, and related combat accessories removed. Sergeants on location had authorized the gear stripping, in part because heat sickness had already claimed at least one soldier in the battalion. But this fact did not stop the lieutenant colonel from kicking a nearby grave in a fit of fury, with such force that even the Afghan officer accompanying him responded in disgust, “What [are] you doing? This is a graveyard!”
A graveyard it was, and in more ways than one. Bergdahl found the decision to set up an observation post on a cemetery offensive enough. The grounds, after all, were full of individuals belonging to a people that had battled foreign invaders for centuries. A modicum of respect was warranted. But the commander’s outburst spoke to a further-reaching defilement. As Bergdahl wrote in an e-mail to his parents not long afterward, “The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american.” In a note to a friend around the same time, he confided that the “Afghan people do need help,” but “conceited soldiers from a failing country [are] not the answer.”
Within days of sending such dispatches, Bergdahl ventured off on his long and lonely walk into the desecrated beyond. Many still consider it a betrayal. And perhaps it was. But if so, it’s the second, oft-forgotten definition of “betray” that tells us something worthwhile—the one about actions that provide accidental evidence for what most refuse to see. And in that sense, Bergdahl’s betrayal wasn’t so much a cipher as a revelation.