The real story behind Bowe Bergdahl is only beginning to unfold. While it may take weeks or months to find out exactly why and how the U.S. soldier may have left his platoon in Afghanistan in 2009 and found himself held captive by the Taliban for five years, Bergdahl’s narrative has renewed long seething debates about America’s foreign entanglements in the Middle East. Was Bergdahl a deserter or hero, a traitor or a POW? And ultimately, was his reason for being in Afghanistan justified or, to use the military acronym, FUBAR (fucked-up beyond all recognition)?
American documentary cinema has long embraced this debate, with U.S. soldiers like Bergdahl emerging as some of the most powerful characters in this ongoing national drama. Think of Scott Camil, the traumatized Vietnam vet, in 1972’s Winter Soldier, who testified to the horrifying brutalization and murder of innocent Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers. Or the number of shell-shocked soldiers spotlighted in recent films about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From The War Tapes to The Ground Truth, Restrepo to Hell and Back Again to The Kill Team, these films offer some possible explanation for what was going on inside Bowe Bergdahl’s head in 2009, revealing the conflicted and complicated psychology of the U.S. soldier.
Among the most prominent and multifaceted examinations of American warriors, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s two memorable portraits, Gunner Palace (2004) and How to Fold A Flag (2011) stand out.
If Gunner Palace reflected the heavy-metal and rap-inspired adrenaline rush of battle—which, by all accounts, Bergdahl also embraced early in his deployment—How to Fold a Flag showcases the inevitable letdown and psychological toll that the war had on its participants. While not all the soldiers on view convey the sense of disillusionment and despair that appears to have marked Bergdahl’s shift from “Rambo-esque soldier … to Peace Corps kind of guy,” as the Wall Street Journal reported, the most resonant figures in How to Fold a Flag are those that are the most tortured: PTSD-afflicted cage-fighter Michael Goss, a man who is literally haunted by “the ghosts” of his fallen comrades, and Javord Drummond, a poor charismatic African American vet who works at a hog-processing plant and seems to embody the idea of the “forgotten soldier”—one who is used in wartime and abused back home.
Early in the film, Goss testifies to the moral quandary of most fighting men on the frontlines. “The moment you do something in war that involves hurting a civilian who is not even a combatant and you start feeling remorse for it, you are no longer considered a soldier,” he says. “You’re considered a pussy.”
Goss’s remarks echo those now infamously circulated in an email Bergdahl wrote to his parents. “I am sorry for everything here,” he said. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live…. We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them…I am sorry for everything.”
If Bergdahl’s frustrations with the war may have led him to leave his unit, Goss internalizes his traumas. He talks about making videos that splice together beheading videos with footage of IED attacks, and pictures of dead Iraqis with family photos. “This was my way of saying: Can someone please help me?” says Goss. But rather than receive treatment, Goss, like many American soldiers deemed problematic, was “chaptered out of the army,” thereby losing all of his benefits. Suffering from suicidal tendencies and feeling like “the loneliest man in the world,” Goss’ only outlet appears to be training for his violent cage fights.
Indeed, How to Fold a Flag not only resonates with the Bergdahl case, but also the latest controversies surrounding the ongoing troubles with the U.S. Veterans’ Administration. Goss appears to be the exact kind of soldier who should have been helped by the V.A., but was thrown out. Likewise, we see Drummond come up against the bureaucracy of the system—he’s hung up on by some U.S. veteran’s health service—and more tragically, his mother is dying of cancer and their insurance doesn’t appear to cover the procedures she needs. Drummond has every reason to be disillusioned with the war. He has no support from the government that he risked his life defending.
Tucker and Epperlein never overtly make How to Fold a Flag an indictment of U.S. military service. But they highlight the ironies that the soldiers face both in the war and at home. The film’s title, for example, comes from the way that soldiers dutifully fold the flag thirteen times at the funerals for their comrades. But the filmmakers intercut this sacred process with Drummond drinking a beer and offering his thoughts about the ultimate sacrifice. “I didn’t choose to go to war for no bullshit,” he says. “What is the relevancy of the war? There’s none. We’re dying for nothing.”
Maybe Bowe Bergdahl felt the same way. If so, he’s definitely not the only one.