soldier homecoming in airport

I did not know who Bowe Bergdahl was when I first heard about him on the news in June. I followed his rehabilitation, which was briefly reported for a week or so and happened in ordinary details. Sergeant Bergdahl was returned from Afghanistan through a prisoner exchange with the Taliban, who had held him for five years. He was welcomed back by his parents and President Obama in front of the White House press corps in the Rose Garden.

After he was released, the news reported the few known events of Bergdahl’s captivity. Intelligence from the night the Taliban caught Bergdahl includes radio dispatch transcripts of Taliban members talking about whether they had captured an American, how they found him off base (going to the bathroom and without a gun) and when they would shoot a video of him for the Americans. Later, a Taliban member said that Bergdahl escaped after two years by fighting off five militants, but was recaptured and shackled to his bed when he slept. In a propaganda tape shot three years into captivity, Bergdahl appears ragged, asking for return. When he came home, English was a struggle for Bergdahl, though he did know Pashto.

After he was returned, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio held Bergdahl as a patient. His rehabilitation team took him out in San Antonio as part of his care. He visited a grocery store. He was asked to pick restaurants he wanted to eat in, but Bergdahl had never been to San Antonio so the team made recommendations. He ate at fast food chains and sit-down places. He went to a few other undisclosed stores. He went to a library. Sometimes the team sat with him and sometimes they supervised from afar. An infinite silent loop seemed to be present behind each errand, making normality so potent as to be safe only in small doses. The implication was that after such extreme dislocation, too much routine too soon could be harmful.

The delicacy of this lingered with me during my easy placid summer. Driving down a suburban road I looked out at the stores. Bergdahl chose his visits. I wondered what damages he thought each location could mend. I wondered if and how he weighed what was too much and what was not enough. I made a silent car game of it sometimes, idling at a red light intersection. What would this place mean exactly, to someone so unaccustomed to it? Bergdahl’s medical supervision suggested the response was visceral.

In June, it was unforeseeable that Bergdahl would be the first of numerous hostages in the news. ISIS has taken over headlines by kidnapping journalists and humanitarian workers and beheading them for YouTube broadcast. President Obama denies the hostages played into the decision on airstrikes, but he admits they attracted popular support robust enough to volley a bill of approval through both houses of Congress.

The geographic logic of war is strange. The beheading videos were not meant to depict Americans on foreign hostile ground but hostile foreigners in the homeland. Via social media, ISIS suggests that they already have grown far beyond their borders, not only by proclaiming a global caliphate but also by drawing fighters from Europe, the United States, and Asia, in addition to North Africa and the Middle East. They are drawing lines of combat everywhere. And so the US has to respond globally as well. Through UN negotiations, the US is pushing for a legal global apparatus to prevent fighters from leaving their countries to join ISIS and, as many countries in Europe have done, to track fighters already abroad to prevent them from returning home unnoticed and enacting domestic terror attacks.

Britain is understandably skeptical about its 30 citizens who initially left Britain to fight for ISIS and now say they want to come home. They’ve been in touch with the International Center for Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London. “It’s not what we came for,” one of the fighters representing the rest said about their ISIS experience. They expected to fight the Syrian regime and found a bloody miasma of “gang violence” instead. They are willing to submit to de-radicalization and surveillance, they say, so long as they are not jailed and can return to their lives. But the policies the British government has considered have not, so far, been sympathetic. Some human rights lawyers are concerned about proposals to temporarily strip suspected fighters of their right to return, even if they hold only British citizenship.

Is rehabilitation like de-radicalization? Rehabilitation carries physical confirmations that it is working. Habilitate originally meant to outfit; rehabilitate meant to return to former privileges. We – an AA group, medical experts, social services – monitor progress towards re-inclusion in able society. We can rehabilitate Bowe Bergdahl to pick up groceries in San Antonio, even if his mental injuries cannot be erased.

By contrast, de-radicalization can have no credible witnesses. We refer to ISIS as “extremists,” but the Syrian rebels we plan to arm against them are “moderates.” Since 9/11, media and law enforcement alike have theorized radicalization as a sliding scale of faith and politics. Such a scale is hard to read. Unlike with addiction or muscular injury, relapse is invisible.

Although radical ideology may be private, it is also a poor predictor of terror (if it was a good one terrorists would not be so rare). As the Brennan Center for Justice observed in a 2011 report, the key determinant that someone is planning an attack is preparation for violence – for example, making dangerous or excessive purchases at a gun or hardware store. Public law enforcement can monitor that easily. What drives people to actually carry out terrorist attacks appears to be more personal. It is, experts suggest, individual drama that pushes people from ideology to violence. Desire for prestige, adventure, and camaraderie.

With that in mind, perhaps it is possible to run more rigorous risk assessments on the ISIS fighters who want to return to the UK. The fighters went abroad for personal fulfillment. Returning home disillusioned means that attempt failed. But de-radicalization would likely involve theological teaching and, more importantly, help settling back in to society: finding housing, employment, family, and community. It would succor fighters with a remade identity and sense of purpose or belonging they searched for abroad but did not find. Returned, watched, and guided, the fighters may be able to find personal fulfillment in the place of last resort – home.

This is an admittedly hopeful scenario. But when I first read about the 30 British fighters I started thinking of them like this because I was reminded of Bergdahl. Bergdahl appears to have walked off camp. He was disillusioned with the army. He had wanted it to be more like the Peace Corps with guns. He read books on humanitarian intervention in South Asia, studied maps, and learned some Pashto. So he left – but then was captured. He was battered by five years of harsh detention. His lawyers report he is grateful for another chance at life. Captivity crippled him so painfully it was hard to take your eyes away from his delicate recovery. It was not clear he wanted, unambiguously, to be home. But it was clear that home was better than war.

“The horror that is America is disgusting,” Bergdahl had written in his last e-mailto his parents before walking off base. Though it was lost in the political fanfare that glossed his return, for Bergdahl, rehabilitation would be contingent and not ideal. The uneasiness of this balance kept lingering this summer when I stopped at red lights, thinking of this returned soldier. This echoes the discomfort we have with returning extremist ex-fighters to civilian life. We fear that their radical views never really fade, just stop being actionable.

And that is no small thing. The span from battlefield to home front is the distance between being a terrorist and a radical – radicals are legal; terrorists are not. Radicals go abroad for the opportunity for fulfillment. They likely return for the same, even if that entails giving up terror, as the abjured ISIS fighters promise to do. Their de-radicalization would seem to require not so much a change in ideology as in location and available resources. Returning fighters postwar to lives that could be better than the ones they left would be less reeducation and more rehabilitation. When it comes to bringing fighters home safely – for us and for them – maybe ideology matters less than we think.


Sahiba Gill is Assistant Editor at The Common. She is currently a student at New York University School of Law.

Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Eric Tillotson; image cropped slightly.


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