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The crucible of Bowe Bergdahl

This article originally appeared in National Journal.

The trial of Bowe Bergdahl has begun. In some quarters, he's already been convicted.

Bergdahl's unnamed codefendant is the war in Afghanistan.

The debate over Bergdahl reflects deep national ambivalence over Afghanistan, the dissatisfying outcome of that war and the sickening sense of justice undone by Taliban prisoner swaps. The five Taliban leaders traded for Bergdahl may or may not attack Americans in Afghanistan, but their ability to direct or influence future plots is beyond question. That they must do that for one year from Qatar is cold counterterrorism comfort, despite assurances of close monitoring from the emir.

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Nothing feels victorious, balanced, or meaningful--even though this war, the just war after 9/11, began with legitimate ferocity and purpose. Some parts of Afghanistan are semi-peaceable. Most are not. None are completely peaceable. Warlords or tribal leaders rule, just as before. Taliban actions are frequent and lethal--just like before. Yes, the Afghan army and police are at the point of the spear, their battlefield casualties evidence of a desire to spare their home from Taliban cruelty. But most hardened analysts of the region are deeply pessimistic about Afghanistan repelling or even deflecting the Taliban after the U.S. leaves. The Iraq War, the one we left Afghanistan to fight, is a possibly terrifying window into the future. In May, 779 were killed there and more than 1,400 wounded in sectarian and terror-related violence.

Look at Guantanamo. President Bush wanted to close it before President Obama did. Five years later, what's left is a standoff with Congress and the glum reality that well-fed detainees there will not face conviction--in either military or civilian courts--and are destined for eventual release and reentry in a war seemingly without end. If the Taliban Five, most held for 12 to 13 years, were not worthy of trial, it's hard to imagine who would be.

All the Afghanistan terminology is opaque, even by wartime legal standards. Even the shadows have shadows, and darkness feeds suspicions and turmoil--about everything in Afghanistan, not just Bergdahl.

Let's start with the fact that Bergdahl was never legally classified as a prisoner of war.

Terrorist prisoners in Guantanamo are not POWs either, but detainees, their legal status as obscured as Bergdahl's because two nation states are not at war and there is no Geneva Convention for a war against terrorism. At least not explicitly.

Was Bergdahl a deserter? Did he turn against the war itself or his own platoon specifically? Did he do both? Is one distinguishable from another? What were Bergdahl's motives? Who in uniform is unworthy of recovery? Do the underlying facts of Bergdahl's disappearance matter as much as the sense that the absence of heroism or even a modicum of valor on his part gnawingly reminds us that so much in Afghanistan feels futile in retrospect? Is part of the rage Bergdahl's platoon members legitimately feel about his actions--be they childish, callous, just plain stupid, or a grotesque combination of all three--a primal and existential scream over a war strategy that failed to deliver victory and that leaves its warriors gruesomely awaiting the Taliban's return to power?

As was frequently heard by those who fought the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies had the clocks, but the Taliban had the time.

Could Bergdahl be a symbol of national angst that time is on the Taliban's side and that the now-scheduled U.S. departure from Afghanistan--which indirectly hastened Bergdahl's release--makes the sacrifices in lives, casualties, treasure, and spirit America devoted to that cause ever more difficult to measure, let alone justify? This feels all the more gut-wrenching during the week commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

I asked former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of his leg in Vietnam, these questions. His answers were more haunting than I expected. We started with the Bergdahl case.

"He's got men in his own unit asking for him to be court-martialed," Kerrey said. "That matters. If he had fought his way out of an ambush and then was captured by the Taliban it would be a much different deal."

I asked about the exchange that set Bergdahl free.

"It's always difficult to do an exchange like this," Kerrey said. "It's always risky. Does this provoke the Taliban to want to take more U.S. prisoners? I honestly don't know. It's unfair to any prisoner over there to say they should not be brought home. But does it increase the risk to the remaining troops in Afghanistan? I do trust [Defense Secretary] Chuck Hagel and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Martin Dempsey and I believe they have thought this through. The president may have the best of the argument on the facts. But the idea there wouldn't be blowback, I mean, I am constantly surprised at what [the White House is] surprised about. The president can say it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to him. But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter to other people."

Lastly, we discussed the larger issue of Afghanistan and the 9/11 generation of warriors and the ongoing national struggle to make sense of their sacrifice.

"You've really got this unusual situation. We've never fought wars like we fought them in Afghanistan and Iraq. Multiple tours of duty for so many and heavy reliance on the National Guard and reserve forces. We never had that in Vietnam or Korea or World War II. The older you get, the harder it is to go back into combat. You accumulate these stresses. We've never fought wars like this. We just flew the wings off the plane. Unfortunately it wasn't a plane, it was human beings."

That led Kerrey to remembrances of Vietnam and what he fears today's warriors may never know.

President Obama outlines U.S. exit strategy in Afghanistan

"The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were never really popular. Vietnam became unpopular. Iraq and Afghanistan got pretty damn close to the unpopularity of Vietnam. And neither war has produced overwhelming evidence they worked or we accomplished anything. In Vietnam, we lost. Our enemy beat us. But it was clean. You can travel back there now and see them adopting some of the things we recognize economically and socially here, especially in South Vietnam. You can't go to Iraq now. If you did, most people would probably say, 'Thank you for fucking up our country.' "

Kerrey fears that may also be true in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves. He ends with this thought:

"There are so many things weighing down on these kids. [Bergdahl's case] brings so much of it up to the surface. Maybe we should lay off on Bergdahl."

And possibly, in the process, lay off ourselves.

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