Stop Blaming Bowe Bergdahl’s Father

Bob Bergdahl
Jani and Bob Bergdahl, parents of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl Brian Losness/Reuters

The conservative media is up in arms for a simple phrase Bowe Bergdahl’s father used at the White House press conference announcing his son’s release from the Taliban: “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” Bob Bergdahl said at the beginning of his remarks. But he said it in Arabic: “bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.”

Then he went on to speak in Pashto, the principal language of the Taliban.

For the birthers who believe Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, that the infamous 2008 New Yorker cover of the president and Michelle burning a flag in the Oval Office was a photograph and that Homeland is a documentary, the bushy-bearded Bob Bergdahl looked like the fifth horseman of the apocalypse—or one of the five Taliban leaders the U.S. traded for his son.

Later came the news that Bob Bergdahl, a former UPS driver, had once tweeted (then deleted), “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, amen!” and had re-tweeted enemy propaganda about the U.S. in the Middle East. When asked about it, Bergdahl said he followed “a bunch of jihadis” on Twitter because they are “great sources of information.”

Unlike, say, the State Department, which played Whac-a-Mole with information regarding the status of Bowe’s whereabouts for the past five years.

Bergdahl and his wife Jani are not Muslims; they are pious Presbyterians. Bob told Time in 2012 that he started growing his beard (and learning some Pashto and Urdu, as well as reading books about Afghanistan) to better understand the world his son could not escape.

The desire to fathom your child’s frame of mind is something every parent knows, and it’s all the more poignant when that child is in harm’s way—or mentally ill. The takedown of Bob Bergdahl may have reached its zenith with Sean Hannity’s claim that he made a “Muslim victory call” in the Rose Garden, but some of the suspicions seem to arise from the fact that the Bergdahls don’t look like the average family at the mall (they are small-town Idaho people who homeschooled their kids, generally something the right supports—just as big beards are OK on Duck Dynasty). The suspicions also come partly from the public record (at a rally in January, Bergdahl addressed his son, saying, Bowe, my son, if you can hear me … you are part of the peace process. You are part of ending the Afghan war. Have faith. Do good works. Tell the truth, and have the patience that can only come from God. We are being tested.) and partly from claims that Bowe is a deserter and perhaps a traitor (not the same thing)—and that as many as six U.S. soldiers may have died trying to rescue him.

The pillorying of Bob Bergdahl comes in the wake of the Santa Barbara, California, shootings and the media scrutiny that the parents of Elliot Rodger, whose son killed six people in a murderous rampage, are enduring. According to The New York Times, his behavior raised flags from almost the beginning.

Diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome at an early age, the boy was moved from school to school, saw many therapists and was prescribed numerous medications—yet his life was a torment. He could not make friends and was bullied repeatedly for his anti-social behavior. One former classmate at a Catholic boys school recalled pranks they would play on him—like taping his head to the desk when he fell asleep—and then added, “We said right from the get-go that that kid was going to lose it someday and just freak out.” Do you think it may have had something to do with taping his head to the desk?

It’s easy to blame the parents when kids go bad (my kids often do). But as Jon Stewart, the new voice of moral conscience in America, put it, “Who the f*** are you to judge what a guy does if he thinks it might help him get his son back?” It wasn’t as if Bob Bergdahl’s first reaction in July 2009, when he returned from his route to find Army officers waiting for him, bearing the news that his son had been captured, was to sit down and study Islam. He wept, he suffered, but he persevered, and like any resourceful man, he tried to understand the nature and origin of the problem. (It reminds me of being in New York after 9/11; in the week that followed, the bookstores and libraries were cleared of books on Islam, jihad, the history of the Middle East and so forth.) Just as Rodger’s parents seemed to consider every possible diagnosis, and try everything for mainstreaming their son.

I don’t write dispassionately on this subject: My grown son has Asperger’s (now labeled an autism spectrum disorder by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is defined as an inability to interact with peers, a lack of appreciation of social cues, and socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior. It’s a broad target, and boys with Asperger’s (it afflicts boys far more often than girls) come in a range of social types. My son is fairly high functioning and is now doing well in a group environment.

But as a child, playdates were fraught with anxiety, and kids had a hard time accepting him—as badly as he wanted to know them, he acted in a manner they found strange. I remember a Block Island vacation when he was 10; on the ferry ride he kept saying, “I hope I make a friend, I hope I make a friend.” But when he met some kids, he quoted lines from The French Connection (“Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your head, get off the bar and get on the wall!”) and then couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to play with him.

Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook school killer, had also been diagnosed with Asperger’s. In an interview with The New Yorker’s Andrew Solomon, Peter Lanza, Adam’s father, detailed the changes his son went through in middle school. “It was crystal clear something was wrong,” Peter said. “The social awkwardness, the uncomfortable anxiety, unable to sleep, stress, unable to concentrate, having a hard time learning, the awkward walk, reduced eye contact. You could see the changes occurring.” Asperger’s, or any form of autism, does not make you psychotic of pathologically violent, but the isolation and frustration it breeds sometimes lead to murderous impulses.

Again, it’s easy to pass judgment on the parents: Adam’s father had not seen his son for years before he went to Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 children and six adults and then took his own life. And his mother allowed her son to arm and isolate himself in what seems like a series of missteps.

Peter Rodger worked in Hollywood—a sin in and of itself in some circles (in a jaw-droppingly simplistic column, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote that Elliot’s video rant “might easily have been mistaken for a scene from one of the movies Rodger’s father, Peter, worked on as a director and cinematographer”). Like most people in Hollywood, Peter’s fortunes rose and fell with the business. He worked as a second-unit director on The Hunger Games (a feminist dystopian fantasy, with no misogynistic video rants), but before that, having been jolted by the events of 9/11, he spent two years pursuing a personal project: a documentary that asked people around the world what God meant to them. He lost $200,000 on What Is God?, according to the Times, and his son mentioned the project dismissively in the 142-page manifesto he sent to his parents the night before his rampage.

“If only my failure of a father had made better decisions with his directing career instead wasting his money on that stupid documentary,” Elliot wrote. Most parents are foolish to expect gratitude, even from healthy children. It’s hard to imagine that someone as disturbed and removed from reality as Elliot Rodgers could have any sense of how much his parents tried to help him. His life was a torment from early on, it seems, and a child in pain often blames the parent for not making the pain go away.

The assumptions about the parents of Bowe Bergdahl and Elliot Rodger say as much about the people making them as they do about the facts of these cases. Republican Senator John McCain, a prisoner in Vietnam for five years, has essentially said Bowe Bergdahl is the one POW they should have left behind, and the desire to understand the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest—let alone its people has been deemed suspect. The possibility that Bowe Bergdahl served honorably and then cracked does not seem to deserve compassion; in messages home, Bowe seemed to have lost faith in the mission, and his father came to question the war as well.

It’s natural to run from bad news, the insoluble problems, the evil that can’t be ours. When I began to read the reports about Elliot Rodger and his parents, I told my wife that it sounded as if they had checked out on their son. I think I was distancing myself from them, avoiding any sense of identification. She reminded me that when our son was living alone, we assured ourselves that he was doing fine, too—even while much of the evidence was to the contrary. It is far easier to tell ourselves stories than it is to go spelunking into the dark crevices where our kids have fallen.

At two different low points in my son’s history, he was hospitalized—he’d heard voices, he’d cut himself. He hadn’t been correctly diagnosed yet, and mental health professionals hung many labels on him—he was schizophrenic; no, he was a borderline personality. I would fly across the country with each new disaster, and in the dark days before Kayak, flying coast to coast on short notice always seemed to mean a layover in Las Vegas. I would go into town to gamble or look at the impressionist paintings in Steve Wynn’s gallery, then go back to the airport. On more than one occasion, I saw a man dressed as Jesus hauling a crucifixion-sized cross in front of the casinos in the blazing heat, and I remember thinking, I know how he feels.

My theme song then was REM’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” The title came from a bizarre incident in which two Russians assaulted CBS News anchor Dan Rather, mistaking him for someone else, and kept asking him that question. But the song is (I think) about a father trying to understand his disturbed and distant son. “I thought I’d pegged you, an idiot’s dream / Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen,” it goes, punctuated by Michael Stipe’s screams of “I couldn’t understand!”

No father I know gives up on his children. I would go around the world for my son (and my daughter) if I thought it would help. Every struggling father—from Bob Bergdahl working for his son’s release to Peter Rodger trying to find the right treatment for his boy—knows the drill: There is no distance we will not go, no language we will not learn and no cave so dark that we will not follow.

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