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A look at Bergdahl’s growing disillusionment as a soldier in Afghanistan

June 5, 2014 at 6:23 PM EDT
New details have emerged about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s time in the military and in captivity, as the political fight over his release intensifies. For insight on the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s time in Afghanistan, Gwen Ifill talks to Matt Farwell, a former soldier in the U.S. Army.
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GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to walk us through some of the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s time in Afghanistan is Matthew Farwell. He is a former Army soldier who served there and helped report a 2012 feature on Bergdahl with the late journalist Michael Hastings for “Rolling Stone” magazine.

Matthew Farwell, thank you for joining us.

MATT FARWELL, Former Soldier, U.S. Army: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: The debate this — the debate here in Washington has been completely about whether Bergdahl was a hostage or whether he was a hero or whether he was a deserter. It seems like it is somewhere in between. It is a more complicated story than that.

MATT FARWELL: Yes, it’s a more complicated and more nuanced story.

But, at the end of the day, the guy was a U.S. soldier in the hands of somebody we’re fighting with. And regardless of any other circumstance, he needed to be brought home and brought back into U.S. custody and U.S. jurisdiction.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back for a while and tell people a little bit about who Bowe Bergdahl is, who he is. How did he come to be in the Army in the first place?

MATT FARWELL: You know, he grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, and joined the Army a little bit later on in life. I believe he was about 23 when he joined, which was the same age I was when I joined.

And I think, you know, he didn’t just join the Army. He joined the infantry, and the parachute infantry at that. And so, like a lot of people, I imagine he joined for many different reasons, idealism, the sense of adventure, patriotism, you know, and, frankly, because there was a war on, and some people need to go fight it.

GWEN IFILL: But, by the time these events came to pass, he had become disillusioned. Your story tells that.

MATT FARWELL: Yes.

It seems that he wasn’t happy in his platoon. He wasn’t happy in Afghanistan, apparently. And he made a very, very poor decision and, you know, really endured some consequences for that, and will for the rest of his life.

GWEN IFILL: There is no question anymore but that he walked away from his post?

MATT FARWELL: I mean, I didn’t think there was much question when we wrote that in the story two years ago, me and Michael, for “Rolling Stone.”

GWEN IFILL: But this debate now is about whether he walked away to join the Taliban, to somehow connect with them or just to get away from his situation. Is there any light that has been shed on that?

MATT FARWELL: You know, I don’t believe that he walked away to join the Taliban. And I think those Daily Beast reports that you referenced on him trying to escape twice would indicate that as well.

GWEN IFILL: Let me talk to you a little bit about some of the e-mails that he exchanged with his parents, which are in your story, which illustrate his kind of growing disillusionment.

And in his last e-mail, you all write the future is — he writes: “The future is too good to waste on lies.”

He’s talking about the war itself.

MATT FARWELL: Yes, ma’am.

GWEN IFILL: So what was it about the war that particularly threw him off? What was it about battle, what was it about combat that disillusioned him so?

MATT FARWELL: Well, you know, I don’t think it was necessarily battle or combat. And I don’t know for a fact.

But I know that I was in the exact same area two years prior as an infantryman, and battle and combat is actually fun. But the war in Afghanistan was a massive — we would call it a Charlie Foxtrot, if I’m being polite. It was a massive cluster.

And we didn’t know what we were doing there. And we still don’t. And that’s why we’re getting out and it has been the longest war in U.S. history.

GWEN IFILL: His father described Bowe Bergdahl in particular as being psychologically isolated. Was that true also of a lot of the men and the women who were fighting, especially in that area of Afghanistan?

MATT FARWELL: You know, some platoons have good unit cohesion. Some people get along. Some people don’t.

And so I can’t necessarily make a case for anyone else but myself. And I had a good time with my platoon mates. And, you know, I love them all like brothers. But look at other soldiers like Robert Bales, for instance, who walked off his post and murdered 16 Afghan, you know, women and children in Kandahar. You know, soldiers have problems.

GWEN IFILL: In this case…

MATT FARWELL: Sometimes.

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry.

In this case, after he walked off, your report writes that he was actually seen by Afghan villagers, that people saw him, and what was his state of mind that we know?

MATT FARWELL: I can’t speak to that, ma’am. I don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: OK. I’m just referencing the story that you wrote in “Rolling Stone,” which talked about the fact that he seemed kind of dazed.

So, negotiations that went on to finally free him about this prisoner swap, this has been going on for some time.

MATT FARWELL: Right.

We wrote in the story that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was been debating it at that time. And McCain hasn’t just flip-flopped in the past couple of months. He was saying pretty crazy stuff back then, calling him the five worst human rights abusers in human history. And John Kerry was actually the voice of reason there, which is bizarre to me.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Well, just for the record, we have invited John McCain and others to appear on the program and we will continue to do that.

Matthew Farwell, thank you very much.

MATT FARWELL: Thank you.