Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing.
Finding Bergdahl: Inside the Search for the Last Prisoner of America’s Longest War
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one ofthem.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
As politicians in Washington wring their hands over the Veterans Affairs scandal, VICE News travels to Portland, Oregon, to see what it’s all really about. We meet Curtis Shanley, a former Marine Corps machine-gunner, who has spent the past five years wading through red tape to get medical attention for a crippling injury he suffered while serving his country in Iraq.
Rewatching Nicolas Cage’s Windtalkers Is a Terrible Way to Memorialize the Last Navajo Code Talker
On June 4, former Marine Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo radio operators of World War II, died at 93. The announcement came from Judith Schiess Avila, his biographer, who worked on Nez’s book, Code Talker. Despite coming at a sad time, I hope the PR she got in the past few days boosted sales of what I hear is a pretty good book (I haven’t read it), because the only piece of media we journalists have had any interest in now that the last code talker is dead, is Windtalkers, a 2002 box office flop featuring Nicolas Cage.
No, Cage doesn’t play one of the Navajos. That would be racist. Instead, he plays one of those white protagonists in a movie about a minority group at war. Like Matthew Broderick in Glory, or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Cage’s white face theoretically makes the whole thing much more palatable than one of the actual Navajo faces, like this one, which belongs to Nez.
Press coverage considers the film one of Nez’s accolades. The Washington Post puts it in a paragraph with his military honors, saying Nez “was honored a generation later, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. ‘Windtalkers,’ a 2002 film starring Nicolas Cage, was based on the code talkers’ story.”
My suspicion is that they, like most of America, gave Windtalkers a miss. It was not a hit, so it’s weird that it’s our reference point for this moment in American History. It’s like memorializing the author Edgar Rice Burroughs by talking about John Carter.
The entertainment and media industries don’t consider a Native American story to be a smart move if you want to make money. Some anonymous people I know who represent talent confided in me that when something having to do with Native Americans gets submitted, they’re vary wary, or they just skip it outright. No one wants to spend their entertainment dollar on anything having to do with Native Americans. Apparently Dances with Wolves was a fluke.
A Yemeni Man Is Suing British Telecom over America’s Deadly Drone Strikes
A deep boom rocked through Sanaa, Yemen, the sound coming from outside of the city, perhaps from near the village of al-Masna’a.
Mohammed al-Qawli, who works at Yemen’s Ministry of Education, was at home with some of his colleagues. To find out what exactly had happened, he called someone he knew who lived in the village. The man on the other end of the phone read out the license plate of a car that had been hit; it belonged to Mohammed’s family. Putting down the phone, he immediately made the 20-minute drive out to the bomb site.
This is what had happened: Mohammed’s cousin, 20-year-old university student Salim al-Qawli, ran an informal taxi service to supplement his family’s income, a common practice if you own a vehicle in Yemen. He was approached by two men who wanted to be driven out of the village and—understandably, given it was his job—agreed. Ali al-Qawli, Salim’s relative and a local schoolteacher, went along for the ride.
While driving towards their destination, they were stopped at a military checkpoint. Then, just before 9 PM, a Hellfire missile tore through the sky and struck the vehicle. Everyone in the car died instantly.
In footage of drone strikes, you normally see a target sitting in the center of a screen before a white flash erupts and fades, leaving nothing but absence behind. The process is quick and clean. But this isn’t what it’s like on the ground. With the car still on fire, local villagers had gathered around the remains of the pickup. “The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming,” Mohammed told me. “The bodies were in pieces.”
The first thing the Nazi garrison on Vågsøy Island, Norway, would have heard when the British No. 3 Commando battalion landed on December 27, 1941 was the sudden blaring drone of bagpipes. One commando stood at the fore of the landing craft, facing the impending battle and playing the peppy, martial “March of the Cameron Men.” Upon coming to a halt onshore, the soldier jumped from the craft, hucked a grenade at the Germans, then drew a full sword and ran screaming into the fray.
That maniacally fierce soldier was 35-year-old Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, and his stunts at this battle, known as Operation Archery, were hardly the most bizarre and semi-suicidal of his life. Over the course of World War II, “Mad Jack,” as he came to be known, survived multiple explosions, escaped a couple of POW camps, captured over 40 Germans at sword point in just one raid, and in 1940 scored the last recorded longbow kill in history. And that’s just the CliffsNotes on his wartime rap sheet.
For many war junkies and badass aficionados, Mad Jack’s exploits are the epitome of military romanticism. His recorded statements, full of swagger like, “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed,” and, “I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently,” seem like the physical manifestation of some mid-century boy’s adventure tale. The Royal Norwegian Explorers Club found him such a paragon of brawn and endeavor that, in a book released this March, they named him one of the greatest adventurers of all time.
Not much is known about Churchill’s youth, save that he graduated from Britain’s premier Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1926 and, at age 20, was shipped off to Burma, where he spent the next few years driving his motorcycle around the region. Possibly bored by a long peacetime, Churchill left the army for a period in 1936 and spent some time as a Nairobi newspaper editor, male model, and a bagpipe-playing, arrow-shooting extra in films like The Thief of Baghdad and A Yank at Oxford. By the end of the decade, he’d become so obsessed with the pipes that he took second place in a 1938 military piping competition at the Aldershot Tattoo, causing a mild scandal because an Englishman had beat out so many Scots. The next year, his archery habit landed him a place as Britain’s shooter at the World Archery Championship in Oslo.
As soon as the Nazis invaded Poland and war became imminent, though, Churchill rushed to the battlefield. The longbow came out almost immediately during the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, France, in mid 1940. He took to practicing guerilla tactics, staging raids, and earning commendations for his bravery, even surviving a clipping by machine gun fire. Then, while watching a German force advance from a tower in the little village of L’Epinette, Churchill signaled his attack by shooting a Nazi sergeant through the chest with a barbed arrow, immediately followed by a hail of bullets from two fellow infantrymen in tow.