Leitura para o fim-de-semana: o último prisioneiro americano

Em Junho de 2009, Bowe Bergdahl deixou a sua base no Afeganistão apenas para ser capturado pelos Talibã. Desde então que é prisioneiro de guerra. O único soldado entre norte-americano capturado com vida desde o início do conflito. Numa altura em que o governo norte-americano pondera abrir conversações e paz com os Talibã, no Qatar, (onde uma eventual troca de prisioneiros estará certamente sobre a mesa), vale a pena recordar este artigo da Rolling Stone, escrito há quase um ano pelo recentemente falecido Michael Hastings. Chama-se America’s Last Prisioner of War.

Courtesy of the Bergdahl Family.

Courtesy of the Bergdahl Family.

The mother and father sit at the kitchen table in their Idaho farmhouse, watching their son on YouTube plead for his life. The Taliban captured 26-year-old Bowe Bergdahl almost three years ago, on June 30th, 2009, and since that day, his parents, Jani and Bob, have had no contact with him. Like the rest of the world, their lone glimpses of Bowe – the only American prisoner of war left in either Iraq or Afghanistan – have come through a series of propaganda videos, filmed while he’s been in captivity.

In the video they’re watching now, Bowe doesn’t look good. He’s emaciated, maybe 30 pounds underweight, his face sunken, his eye sockets like caves. He’s wearing a scraggly beard and he’s talking funny, with some kind of foreign accent. Jani presses her left hand across her forehead, as if shielding herself from the images onscreen, her eyes filling with tears. Bob, unable to look away, hits play on the MacBook Pro for perhaps the 30th time. Over and over again, he watches as his only son, dressed in a ragged uniform, begs for someone to rescue him.

“Release me, please!” Bowe screams at the camera. “I’m begging you – bring me home!”

Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl arrived in Afghanistan at the worst possible moment, just as President Barack Obama had ordered the first troop surge in the spring of 2009. Rather than withdraw from a disastrous and increasingly deadly war started by his predecessor, the new commander in chief had decided to escalate the conflict, tripling the number of troops to 100,000 and employing a counterinsurgency strategy that had yet to demonstrate any measurable success. To many on Obama’s staff, who had been studying Lessons in Disaster, a book about America’s failure in Vietnam, the catastrophe to come seemed almost preordained. “My God,” his deputy national security adviser Tom Don­ilon said at the time. “What are we getting this guy into?” Over the next three years, 13,000 Americans would be killed or wounded in Afghanistan – more than during the previous eight years of war under George W. Bush.

Bowe’s own tour of duty in Afghanistan mirrored the larger American experience in the war – marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity. And it is with Bowe that the war will likely come to an end. On May 1st, in a surprise visit to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, President Obama announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”

Bowe Robert Bergdahl was born in Sun Valley, Idaho, on March 28th, 1986 – the same day as Lady Gaga, as his parents like to point out. Bob and Jani had moved to Idaho from California after college, building a small, two-­bedroom home on 40 acres of farmland not far from the small town of Hailey, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His father worked construction, his mother odd jobs, living the life of ski bums, nearly off the grid. In 1983, the year Bowe’s older sister Sky was born, his parents pulled in $7,000 and paid off the hospital bills for her birth with weekly $20 deposits.

Rather than put their kids in the local school system, Jani and Bob home-schooled Bowe and his sister. Devout Calvinists, they taught the children for six hours a day, instructing them in religious thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. “Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations,” his father recalls. “Bowe was definitely instilled with truth. He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics.”

By the age of five, Bowe had also learned to shoot a .22 rifle and to ride horses. He developed a love for dirt bikes and immersed himself in boy’s adventure tales – anything that had to do with sailing and the ocean – as well as cartoons. His favorite was Beetle Bailey, the comic-strip antihero who shambles through life in the Army as a permanent fuck-up.

By the time he was 16, Bowe had grown restless with his home-schooling – and his parents. He began to explore the wider world, and became obsessed with learning how to fence. At a nearby fencing studio, which also offered ballet classes, he was recruited by a beautiful local girl to be a “lifter” – the guy who holds the girl aloft in a ballet sequence. He soon moved in with the girl, whose family owned a tea shop in Ketchum, and made it his second home. The matriarch of the household, Kim Harrison, introduced him to Buddhism and Tarot cards. Bowe repaid his new family by doing construction work on their home. “To me, it was the normal path teenagers take,” says Bob. “Like going to college – you get into all this stuff.”

At 20, Bowe went even farther afield in search of the kind of boy’s adventure that had mesmerized him for years: He decided to join the French Foreign Legion, the infantry force made up of foreigners who want “to start a new life,” as the legion’s recruiting website puts it. He traveled to Paris and started to learn French, but his application was rejected. “He was absolutely devastated when the French Foreign Legion didn’t take him,” Bob says. “They just didn’t want an American home-schooled in Idaho. They just said no way.” Bowe pored over a survival and combat handbook written by a former member of the British special forces, and he gravitated toward the TV show Man vs. Wild, hosted by another legendary British soldier. “This became his role model,” his father says. “He is Bear Grylls in his own mind.”

Returning home from Europe, Bowe drifted for the next few years, working mainly as a barista at Zaney’s, a local coffee shop in Hailey. But he kept dreaming of ways to pursue something bigger. In 2008, he spoke to a family friend who was working as a missionary in Uganda about going over to Africa to teach “self-defense techniques” to villagers being targeted by brutal militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army. He and his father even fantasized about the creation of a special ­operations unit to “kill these fucks” in Africa, imagining that “someone needed to run an op with some military people dressed up like U.N. people” to take out warlords in Darfur and Sudan. Before a spot in the friend’s missionary program could open up, though, Bowe had decided on a different adventure.

One day that spring, Bowe called his mother. “Mom, I need to talk to you and Dad about something,” he said. He stopped by the house that Saturday, when his father was home from work.

“I’m thinking about joining the Army,” Bowe told his parents.

“You’re thinking about joining?” his father asked. “Or you already signed on the dotted line?”

“Well, yeah,” Bowe admitted.

Bowe’s mother wished he had enlisted in a different branch, like the Navy, that wouldn’t have put him on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. His father did what he always did with his son’s dreams. “I just tried to be supportive,” Bob says.

But what Bowe found in the Army, according to his parents, was a “deception” – one that started from the moment he was recruited. Bowe had been enticed to join the Army, they say, with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves – “the whole COIN thing,” says Bob, citing the shorthand for America’s strategy of counterinsurgency. “We were given a fictitious picture, an artificially created picture of what we were doing in Afghanistan.”

After 16 weeks of training, Bowe graduated from infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia, in the fall of 2008. While others in his training unit – A Company 2-58 – used their weekend passes to hit up strip clubs, Bowe hung out at Barnes & Noble and read books. He was already an expert shot from his days firing his .22 in the mountains of Idaho. When his parents attended the graduation, the drill sergeant told them, “Bowe was good to go when he got here.” After completing the course, Bowe was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Fort Richardson, Alaska, not far from Anchorage. He arrived in October 2008.

At first, according to soldiers in his unit, Bowe seemed to embrace Army life. “He showed up, looked like a normal Joe,” says former Specialist Jason Fry, who is now studying for a master’s in theology. “When he first got to the unit, he was the leadership’s pet. He read the Ranger Handbook like no other. Some people resented him for it.” Bowe kept to himself, doing physical training on his own. “He never hung out with anyone, always in the background, never wanted to be in front of anything,” says Fry. He surrounded himself with piles of books, including Three Cups of Tea, about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as instructions on Zen meditation and an introductory ethics handbook with writings from Aristotle, Augustine, Kant and Hume.”

O resto da história pode ser lida aqui. Aviso: é longa.

Michael Hastings: a morte levou o jornalista sem medo

Esta semana o jornalismo mundial ficou mais pobre: Michael Hastings, repórter do BuzzFeed e colaborador das revistas Rolling Stone e Newsweek morreu num acidente de viação. Tinha 33 anos.

Por cá, o nome de Michael Hastings não era assim tão conhecido. A juventude não lhe permitiu chegar ao reconhecimento público de Bob Woodward, por exemplo. Mas nos Estados Unidos, Hastings era conhecido por ser um dos mais tenazes e completos jornalistas de investigação. Talvez se recordem de um artigo que há dois anos ele escreveu para a Rolling Stone e que acabou por influenciar toda a estratégia norte-americana no Afeganistão. Era um perfil do general Stanley McChrystal e chamava-se The Runnaway General.

Quando a história foi publicada, estava em Washington a participar numa formação de jornalistas patrocinada pela Fundação Luso Americana. Recordo-me perfeitamente do seu impacto e de como levou Barack Obama a chamar o general à Casa Branca e depois a demiti-lo. Foi uma grande história. Mas não a única. Para além de dezenas de artigos memoráveis, Hastings escreveu ainda os livros The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan e  I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story

Na sua morte, a Rolling Stone recordou-o assim:

“There’s a scene from Michael Hastings’ first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, where he describes being at a school assembly in his hometown of Malone, New York. He was in the fifth grade and his school (“a very small Catholic school in a very small town”) had brought in a returning veteran to describe his experiences in the first Iraq war. Michael put it this way:

We listened to a returning veteran who couldn’t have been older than twenty. I raised my hand and asked him: Did you carry an M-16, and does an M-16 have automatic and semiautomatic fire? And if so, is there a switch on the gun? (Yes, it was both, and there is a switch). He described trying to dig a foxhole in the desert, and how he went on a mission for two days, observing the enemy from a distance.

I was riveted. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity . . .

I remember reading this years ago and thinking how very much it reminded me of a famous scene from Serpico, where the now-grown ace policeman describes being a boy watching the cops show up at a crime scene:

All of a sudden the crowd just parted, like the Red Sea, you see? And there were these guys in blue, and I said, ‘They know.’ What do they know? What do they know?

I didn’t know Michael Hastings very well, but one thing about him was always obvious – he was born to be in the news business, he loved it, he was made for it. He wrote about Iraq and Afghanistan as places he had always been destined to visit. By that I mean not those countries particularly, but those places as global hot spots, the trouble zones, the places where the news happened. “I am finally here,” is how he described reaching Baghdad, and that was the lead-in to the school assembly story. Most people would describe Baghdad as a place one finally leaves. But Hastings, his whole life, he wanted to go to those places, he ached to do this job. He wanted to be one of those people who “knew.”

I repeat that I didn’t know him all that well, and I say this even though I’ve read his excellent books. Michael was refreshingly old-school in an Internet age when everybody overindulges in premature autobiography. He was all reporter. His mantra was “a fact in every sentence” and he once humorously admonished young journalists to never even talk to editors about “prose” or wanting to be a “writer” (he typed that word like an evidence tech holding a piece of decomposing brain with a rubber glove). For him it was all about getting the story, and at the terribly young age of 33 he was obviously already a master at that.

Most people know him from the story he wrote about General McChrystal, for his big scoops – a pure reporter measures his or herself by scoops, and Michael had some huge ones. But the wonderful thing about his work was his promiscuous fascination with facts of all kinds, news-cycle-shaking or not. He swallowed up extraneous details of all varieties and that fleshed out his books and stories, making the narratives three-dimensional, authoritative and believable, just the way they’re supposed to be.

His particular specialty was quickly adopting the local jargon, mastering the social geography of a new place, what things were called, where key people hung out. His books are full of these joyously-reported little insider details, like the fact that mercenary firms in Iraq like Blackwater and Triple Canopy were nicknamed “Bongwater and Triple Comedy,” or that an old British fort behind a soccer stadium in Kabul was the place for clandestine meetings, “spook central,” as he explained in The Operators.

What people don’t realize about the kinds of books Michael wrote is that they’re like novels, except that novelists get to invent every prop in every scene; Michael had to learn every single one of these little details either from personal experience or from a source, and I don’t recall ever hearing that he got any of them wrong.

I don’t know how he got the sources he did, except to say that in person he seemed immensely likeable, enthusiastic, smart; his books also show him to be a little bit of a chameleon, seamlessly speaking in the acronym-laden jargon of FOB America, the archipelago of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan where he made his career. Reading his dialogues from airports and convoys and hotel lounges, you can see him subtly adjusting his tone or his opinions depending on the situation, sometimes to fit in better, sometimes to challenge people to shake something loose. “Being a contrarian, I argued with my antiwar colleagues,” he wrote about the Iraq war in I Lost My Love, “taking on the neoconservative talking points just to see how they felt . . .”

The few times I did meet Michael came in the wake of his sudden celebrity after the McChrystal story broke, and I remember being very surprised at how calmly he was taking it all, how unimpressed he was by – well, by himself, I guess. He may have been preparing since the fifth grade for the fame that comes with big scoops as well, for all I knew, but that didn’t really seem like the explanation. It seemed more to me that he was just fascinated by what he’d learned on the job, and talking about it on TV was just a natural thing to him. He was just into it.

He wasn’t even old enough yet to know how young he still was, if that makes any sense. Not long ago, he said that you have to act like reporting is “more important to you than anything else in your life – family, friends, social life, whatever.” That’s one of those things you say when you’re young, but it’s an idea that turns out to be a pleasure to outgrow. It’s a cruel thing that he may have missed the chance to find that out. But not many other things got by him. He was really that good. We will all miss him.”

Para que apareçam mais como ele talvez seja bom recordar a lista de conselhos para todos aqueles que se querem tornar jornalistas que ele elaborou à cerca de um ano:

Okay, here’s my advice to you (and young journalists in general):
1.) You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it’s medical school or law school.
2.) When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.
3.) Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it’s unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it’s also the reality.
4.) When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence.
5.) Also, keep the stories simple and to the point, at least at first.
6.) You should have a blog and be following journalists you like on Twitter.
7.) If there’s a publication you want to work for or write for, cold call the editors and/or email them. This can work.
8) By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)
9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.
10) Learn to embrace rejection as part of the gig. Keep writing/pitching/reading.

Realmente, o jornalismo ficou mais pobre.

Mikhail Galustov/Redux

Michael Hastings, no Afeganistão.
Foto: Mikhail Galustov/Redux