Bowe Bergdahl Dances With Wolves

The heavy price a deserter paid for idealizing the Taliban as the "Noble Savage."

dwDances with Wolves is a 1990 film starring Kevin Costner as an army lieutenant who leaves his unoccupied American frontier military post because he is attracted to the lifestyle and customs of a Sioux Indian tribe. He learns their language, is accepted as an honored guest, and eventually abandons his post after he falls in love with one of their women. When U.S. army soldiers reoccupy the post the lieutenant is captured, arrested as a traitor, and charged with desertion. While being transported back east as a prisoner, the Sioux track down the convoy, kill the soldiers, and free the lieutenant. The film ends with him riding into the mountains with his Sioux wife. This liberal love story—similar to many others that demonize the white man and the military, as well as misrepresent the barbarism of their enemies—is the type of fairytale that may have inspired Bowe Bergdahl to walk off into the mountains of Afghanistan.

Like Kevin Costner in the film, Bergdahl began learning the native language of Pashto, and reportedly spent more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon. A few days before he went missing, he told his parents in an e-mail that he “was ashamed to be an American,” and that “the horror that is America is disgusting.” Several news reports claimed that the night he disappeared from his base in Afghanistan he left a note in his tent saying “he wanted to renounce his citizenship and go find the Taliban.”

Bergdahl’s disillusionment seems to be based upon a combination of the belief in the mythology of the Noble Savage and liberal propaganda derived from postcolonial and anti-hegemonic theory that interprets history, politics, and culture in the context of Western domination and oppression. This form of disillusionment is perpetuated in Hollywood films and revisionist history that portray white men as the oppressors in every conflict regardless of factual historical accounts. Dances with Wolves depicted the Sioux as pacifists and environmentalists when they were the most bloodthirsty of all the Plains Indian tribes, raping, pillaging, and torturing people for entertainment.

Bergdahl seemed to have similar misconceptions idealizing the Taliban and not understanding the threat. His fellow platoon members contend that he was a deserter. If that is the case, then similar to the army lieutenant in the film Dances with Wolves, Bergdahl “Turned Injun,” a pejorative, but accurate expression for traitors who willingly convert to their enemies’ ideology and adopt their traditions, language, and customs.

“Turning Injun” should not be equated with “Stockholm Syndrome,” in which a person is taken hostage and may begin to sympathize and identify with their captives. The difference is significant: the latter relinquishes culpability. By choosing to abandon his unit Bergdahl was not a typical hostage who was taken captive eventually suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, rather he was a victim of liberal idealism who was mugged by reality. His suffering involved severe disillusionment -- the result of bitter disappointment that the Taliban whom he idealized as the Noble Savage turned out simply to be savages.

Conflicting reports of Bergdahl converting to Islam and working with the Taliban while also trying to escape has provoked disagreement and contradictory interpretations of the situation. Understanding some of the Taliban sexual practices may explain some of the inconsistency in Bergdahl’s behavior. The Taliban are ethnic Pashtun who combine Islam with their Pastunwali honor code, often resulting in differences in perceptions of honor and shame particularly as it relates to sexuality. A practice that is designated as strictly taboo in Islam but widely practiced by the Pashtun and Taliban is sex between men. Pashtun reject the label of homosexuality and describe relationships with other men as something they do, not who they are. In addition, it is common for men to have sexual relationships with young boys. Pashtun men shun women both socially and sexually and one of their most popular sayings is “women are for children, boys are for pleasure.” For Pashtun men, having a young boy lover (ashna) is not only not taboo, but increases status and reputation. This is exemplified in a prevalent cultural practice called “bacha bazi,” or “boy play.”

Bacha bazi is essentially the practice of trafficking pre-teen and teenage boys to be used as sex slaves by Afghani Pashtun men of status. The young boys are kidnapped into the trade or sometimes sold by their parents who are desperate for money. The boys are forced to dance and sing, wear make-up, and dress like girls at parties where they are often shared with their owners' close friends for sex. Dancing boys are a lucrative business. Men pay a lot of money to purchase boys who are placed up for auction, kept as permanent sex slaves, traded, or resold. The practice was originally more common in northern Afghanistan but has spread to the South. Afghans view this tradition with pride.

The Taliban attempted to suppress homosexuality and eliminate the tradition of bacha bazi, but it was so pervasive among Taliban militants that there was little effort made to stop the practice or crimes related to the activity. In an attempt to mitigate the abuse of young boys, the Taliban came up with a set of 30 laws in 2007. Law #19 stated that Taliban fighters must not take young boys without facial hair into their private quarters. For the Pashtun it is simply a way of life not any different than the practice of child brides to older men, so it is neither immoral nor shameful. In fact, it is socially sanctioned, has historical precedence, and is glorified in Pashtun poetry and literature. The only instance where shame is attached is serving in the female role, and that is mitigated by growing into the male role.

Regardless of whether Bergdahl was a collaborator who naively joined the Taliban to help the Afghan people, or whether he was captured after wandering off base, he most likely was repeatedly raped. Bergdahl may have been relegated to one of the Taliban ‘Ashna’ boys that are groomed for sex—in prison parlance, he was their “bitch.” This may explain his attempts at escape and his clean shaven appearance during his handover to American Special Operations troops. In recent reports Bowe Bergdahl told military officials that he was tortured, beaten and locked in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape. The Taliban also gang rape men, women and children as punishment. If he were raped by the Taliban or kept as a sex boy it is unlikely that it will become public knowledge.

This entire scandal can be analyzed in terms of honor. Bergdahl did not comprehend military honor as he did not have any loyalty for his fellow soldiers or allegiance to his country. He certainly did not have any comprehension of the Pastunwali honor code or he would have understood that the Taliban could never respect someone who betrayed his own people. If National Security Advisor Susan Rice had any concept of honor, she would not have stated that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. The administration also obviously has no concept of military or Pashtun honor, as they would have understood that a prisoner swap only demonstrates weakness, shame and a loss of face for both the military and America.

The Bergdahl scandal exemplifies how political correctness has infected every aspect of the military, from suspending counter jihad training courses, to relaxing uniform rules to make religious allowances. The epitome of political correctness is exemplified in the fact that although Bergdahl left written notes indicating he abandoned his platoon, he was promoted in absentia twice from private first class to sergeant, and almost received a third promotion to staff sergeant.

Army basic training is supposed to transform civilians into disciplined infantrymen that possess the Army values, fundamental soldier skills, physical fitness, character, confidence, commitment, loyalty, and the warrior ethos ready to accomplish the mission of the infantry. Now, however, their hands are tied by a Commander-in-Chief who in one year fired nine senior commanding Generals and whose politically correct policies led to the degradation of traditional military culture. This resulted in a soldier who acted upon misguided ideals of social justice, viewed violent enemies as oppressed occupied victims of American aggression and who had no concept of loyalty and allegiance to his brothers in arms. The Army was supposed to teach Bowe Bergdahl about honor and shame; instead the Taliban did.

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