Robert Bergdahl’s beard of proof
A few questions for all of you parents:
What would you be willing to do to save the life of your child being held captive by the Taliban?
If you thought his or her captors might better hear your pleas spoken in their native language, would you learn it?
If you knew your child’s rescue depended on keeping his or her imprisonment on the public’s mind, would you change your appearance to telegraph how much time had passed? Would you do this even if some accused you of emulating your child’s captors?
Is it so hard to imagine a loving parent answering anything but “yes, a thousand times yes”? As a parent, I’d do just about anything, as long as it didn’t harm an innocent person, to bring my son or daughter home alive. In this way, I couldn’t be more ordinary in my frantic love for my children.
So it is disconcerting — appalling, really — to take in some of the coverage of Robert Bergdahl, the former UPS driver and father of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom U.S. troops rescued last week in a prisoner swap with the Taliban, who had held him captive for five years.
Robert Bergdahl has appeared with his wife, Jani, in two news conferences — one in Boise, Idaho, the other at the White House with President Barack Obama. Bergdahl showed up with relief in his eyes and a long blond beard on his face. He also slipped between English and Pashto, the language of southern Afghanistan, when addressing his son.
Bergdahl’s facial hair tells the story of the passage of time since his only son was imprisoned — the days that turned into months that became years. His brief comments in Pashto were an apparent attempt to communicate with his son, who, he worried, may no longer understand English well.
“Bowe, I love you. I’m your father,” he said at the Idaho news conference. “I’ve written to you over and over. Can you speak English still? … I hope that when you hear this — and when you’re ready to hear this … I hope your English is coming back. … I love you. … I’m so proud of your character … your patience and your perseverance … your cultural abilities to adapt, your language skills, your desire and your action to serve this country in a very difficult, long war.”
In explaining why he and his wife were waiting to speak to their son, Bergdahl compared him to a diver coming up slowly from the ocean depths.
“We haven’t talked to Bowe yet. We haven’t called him on the phone. … There’s a reason for that. … Bowe has been gone so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back. … If he comes up too fast, it could kill him.”
In the days since Bowe Bergdahl’s rescue, the story has evolved quickly from one of celebration to blame. A few men who served with him have publicly denounced him as a deserter who caused the deaths of six to eight soldiers dispatched to find him.
These claims are getting steady traction in the media, but The New York Times reported this week that “a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive.”
This hasn’t stopped some conservative pundits from attacking Bowe Bergdahl — and now his father.
“He has learned to speak Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and looks like a Muslim,” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said. “He’s also somewhat sympathetic to Islam, actually thanking Allah right in front of the president.”
I want to invite O’Reilly to come for a visit to Holmes County, Ohio, where he can meet countless Mennonites who smile behind beards similar — suspiciously so, in Fox parlance — to Robert Bergdahl’s.
Not to be outdone, Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friends” added: “He says he was growing his beard because his son was in captivity. Well, your son’s out now. So if you really … no longer want to look like a member of the Taliban, you don’t have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?”
I draw attention to these uninformed judgments because they are reverberating on the Web. They also offer all of us an opportunity to reflect on what we would do if Bowe Bergdahl were our child, if his parents’ fears had been ours.
We have become a culture of immediacy, demanding all the information right this very minute. As was so evident during the parents’ initial statements, the human heart cannot be rushed. That is as true today as it was before any of us had ever heard of the Internet or CNN. We absorb what we can, in our own time. Sometimes, love requires us to wait.
Why didn’t Robert Bergdahl shave off his beard before that news conference at the White House?
Such a ridiculous question.
Instead, let’s ask ourselves: How do we look at that bushy blond beard and not see the face of an anguished father who refused to believe that his son would never come home?
Editor’s?Note” Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.