Small Wars Journal

What Just Happened?

Author’s note: Politics and information warfare are a game of strategy and long-term gain. Well-crafted strategies make use of emotional ambushes, like any other military operation. These types of events force the unsuspecting to be consumed in the moment, forcing its victims to focus on the most immediate targets for the sake of survival. The more intense the ambush, the greater distraction from the larger strategic objective. What follows is a perspective of the Bergdahl release from Taliban control from a perspective of information strategies and influence. The views are the authors alone.

What Just Happened?

Looking at Bergdahl Through the Lens of Political Spin

The emotion around the release of Bergdahl from Taliban control has created a maelstrom of public reaction. This is a divisive issue that has pitted a war-tired Americana that is ready to put the past 13 years to bed against an America looking for purpose and meaning for the personal and financial costs that have been paid post 9-11. As issues go, there are few that can cause such an up-swell of open hostility as those that drive a wedge between traditional values and reformist ideologies. Trying to make sense of the events is almost impossible. The emotions and ideological triggers are so deep with the Bergdahl incident that we all become blinded to some degree, turning to trench warfare and the limited perspective of the battlefield that such fighting permits. Those providing “first-hand accounts” of the events become subject to “proof’ or accusations of “hearsay.” Supporting the Bergdahl release becomes a bipolar discussion of “activist progressive agendas” versus “conservative right anti-administration motivations.” For those adventurous enough to draw conclusions from the events the response is a variation of binary outcomes that pit “apologists” against “conspiracy nut-jobs.” The bottom line is that the Bergdahl issue has become a cultural labyrinth where escape is lost to the invisible walls of power, deceit and manipulation.

Politics is business and business is politics. Politics is also metaphor on a grand stage with an elected and appointed cast scripting events for an audience we call citizens. No decision is ever made without an assessment of risk and nothing helps more than a good drama to keep the audience engaged. As like the Romans, “Bread and Circus.” Setting the emotions of Bergdahl aside, his return to public view is another serial in the ever-evolving genre of reality TV. His debut represents viewership numbers, ratings, advertisement revenues and political fund-raising. For the audience, it is a drama that stirs personal emotions, providing a level of entertainment of the highest order… for unlike other reality TV events, Bergdahl has the best of story built-in: it’s personal.

In the arena of politics-as-business an event such as Bergdahl is more than useful - it is strategic. While Americans love good stories, they also demand several key elements for its success: 1) a villain or great evil; 2) a story that allows for some form of armchair quarterbacking; 3) something that is polarizing; and 4) the ability to point the finger at “the other guy” as validation for our own personal beliefs. That last point is essential for we are each of us more rightfully “American” than those that we disagree with. Once crafted, this ideal story captivates the audience, embroils and intrenches belief structures, and galvanizes rifts between people, both friends and strangers. It is the foundation of great political manipulation.

For the audience, the concerns and focus are rooted in various codes and ethics. Those that see him guilty reference a litany of first hand accounts and observations establishing his intent to desert and join the enemy; those that embrace his return frame their arguments in terms of forgiveness and an apparent penance that he has had to endure under the hands of his would be captors. Both sides seek to establish an unequivocal truth. It is an unwilling game that the various factions are enlisted in as part of the bigger game created by the political chess masters. It is a game played not for pieces but for the position of future games, reputations and power. While the audience waits eagerly for the next installment of the series, the scriptwriters have already completed this seasons outcome and have begun to craft the next season’s drama.

The Bergdahl event was not miscalculated, nor was any step along the way overlooked. There was a bit of luck involved as with all great performances, but the luck was generated from the mastery of the craft from which the event was born. Consider the act of releasing the prisoners without Congressional approval. Our beloved villains of GITMO were set free to once again reinvigorate the narrative of fear. Congress has proven itself so dysfunctional that the action was already known to create public condemnation, political polarization, and no outcome of any consequence or accountability… and of course no matter what is said, it is the fault of the Republicans. The script is predictable. All that is needed for a good audience “bite” is to change a few of the characters and re-sequence some of the events.

Move the story along to the announcement of Bergdahl’s release on the White House lawn with Bergdahl’s parents present. Bergdahl’s father is well known for his anti-American statements. What better character to introduce than a Pashtun speaking hater of the State that is now standing beside the Commander and Chief. For the supporters of Bergdahl it is a foreshadowing of forgiveness and the symbolic return of the lost sheep into the fold; for those standing against Bergdahl it is a bold statement that duty and honor are no longer defined by military service but to values somehow greater than all of us… love for our children. The Pashtun improv was a fanatic bit of comedic timing, driving the wedge deeper between the polarizing sides and speaking to that greater polemic of “we forgive our enemies.” And let us not forgot the removal of Dad’s Tweets… likely a little Secret Service quick cleansing as part of the cost of admission to be in the show.

Then there is the dark past of Bergdahl. Did or did he not desert his unit? Can we prove it? Does it even matter now that he has been with an “enemy” for five years. Yes, that same enemy we gave a happy wave and a smile to as we escorted Bergdahl on to the helicopter without even searching him for explosives, fully aware that our Special Operations boys would be in the frame of the video. We call that guilty by association; yet another master move by the political machine. The leading narrative begins by welcoming our “hero” home. Once the assault from social media begins, the story shifts to things like “Unfair… I was a SGT and I can’t judge…”, to “we were unaware of his past…” or “it is too early to get into this…”. All the while the ire builds with the main target now shifting away from the policto’s to something ever more important: the Pentagon and the Army top brass. Checkmate. Our story just won an Emmy for best production and cast.

There is no greater fear for those in politics than accountability. After all, it’s a dirty job, with long thankless hours, stardom, and difficulties mastering scripts and roles for the daily productions of soap operas the American public demands. If the audience ratings fall, job security goes with it. Worse, when the audience begins to question the acting, and turns their attention to a competing show, say for example, the military, the political types now face a crisis of control and power. A production like Bergdahl offers its producers opportunity to not only win back fans, but create a competing drama that their production can manipulate. Fueling the audience’s conflict between faith and anger with the US Army takes on a natural shift in the storyline. As with the Bergdahl show, the new accusations are a built for realty TV script that offer the hook for the viewer of being personal and true. Suggest “cover-up” and “scandal” and viewer ratings for the Bergdahl show soar. It no longer becomes a question of a pilot episode or one-season run, but of several years plus spin-offs. Best of all, that fear for accountability is now resolved, taking the political type off the hook.

With a government increasingly accountable only to itself, the act of pillaging its citizens through taxation and regulation to grow power and personal agendas has evolved to high art form. For the political types there remains one outlier of concern: coup d’etat. With Thailand and all of its sex tourism industry now under military rule, that fear has grown into regular nightmares. One only needs to look under the bed of any political type to find the most read chapter in their coveted book of horrors. Could it happen here? Such an idea is even suggested as a citizen right in our own Declaration of Independence:

“… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”

The likely candidate for such an engaging show would be the military. After all, they have all of the toys for the finest special effects and action sequences. They have “cool guy” factor ratings that leave every political type in envy. That’s where the Bergdahl show wins again an Oscar level performance that places our entire military at odds with both itself and the citizens, pitting those themes of honor, duty, brotherhood against forgiveness and progressive America. The story’s climax builds as the drama causes the actors and the audience to squirm on the edge of their chairs. What will happen next? What will I do if…? Sales of prepping supplies, guns and ammo grow. Those that don’t participate accuse those that do of being off kilter. Meanwhile, Pentagon budgets get placed under the axe again. DHS expands its footprint to protect us from the ever-growing threat of “domestic terror.” We stay captivated by the story, losing interest in all but our work, our day-to-day, and the drama’s we cannot control. The board is cleared; a new game set to begin. The series plays out to a predictable end… compromise and status quo. As they say in marketing, “eventually all things become vanilla.”

As for impeachment, that show will be launched by the Republicans. It won’t get more than a pilot run.