[Author’s note: Politics and power are a game of strategy and board position. Master’s of the game maneuver like a military tactician in war, making use of information and events as their weapon of choice. The ambush is a tactic used by the best of the game masters, leveraging surprise, intensity, and timing to overwhelm an adversary and create opportunity. It is an event that forces the unsuspecting to be consumed within the moment as focus shifts to the immediate threat and survival instincts take over to preserve personal and emotional cohesion. The more intense the ambush, the greater the potential to create an effective distraction from the larger strategic objectives. Bergdahl’s release can be viewed in this manner. What follows is a perspective of the Bergdahl release from Taliban control through a lens of information strategies and influence. The views are the authors alone.]
The emotion around the release of Bergdahl from Taliban control has created a maelstrom of public reaction. This is a divisive issue that has pitted a war-tired Americana that is ready to put the past thirteen years to bed against an America looking for purpose and meaning for the personal and financial costs that have been paid post 9-11. As issues go, there are few that can cause such an up-swell of open hostility as those that drive a wedge between traditional values and reformist ideologies. Trying to make sense of the events is almost impossible. The emotions and ideological triggers are so deep with the Bergdahl incident that we all become blinded to some degree; turning to trench warfare and the limited perspective of the battlefield that such fighting permits. Those providing “first-hand accounts” of the events become subject to “proof” or accusations of “hearsay.” Supporting the Bergdahl release becomes a bipolar discussion of “activist progressive agendas” versus “conservative right anti-administration motivations.” For those adventurous enough to draw conclusions from the events the response is a variation of binary outcomes that pit “apologists” against “conspiracy nut-jobs.” The bottom line is that the Bergdahl issue has become a cultural labyrinth where escape is lost to the invisible walls of power, deceit and manipulation.
Politics is business and business is politics. Politics is also metaphor on a grand stage with an elected and appointed cast scripting events for an audience we call citizens. No decision is ever made without an assessment of risk and nothing helps more than a good drama to keep the audience engaged. As like the Romans, “Bread and Circus.” Setting the emotions of Bergdahl aside, his return to public view is another serial in the ever-evolving genre of reality TV. His debut for the Game Masters represents viewership numbers, ratings, advertisement revenues and political fund-raising opportunities. For the audience, it is a drama that stirs personal emotions, providing a level of entertainment of the highest order… for unlike other reality TV events, Bergdahl has the best of story built-in: it’s true and it’s personal.
In the arena of politics-as-business an event such as Bergdahl is more than useful – it is strategic. While Americans love good stories, they also demand several key elements for its success: 1) a villain or great evil; 2) a story that allows for some form of armchair quarterbacking; 3) something that is polarizing; and 4) the ability to point the finger at “the other guy” as validation for our own personal beliefs. That last point is essential for we are each of us more rightfully “American” than those that we disagree with. Once crafted, this ideal story captivates the audience, embroils and entrenches belief structures, and galvanizes rifts between people, both friends and strangers. It is the foundation of great political manipulation.
For the audience, the concerns and focus are rooted in various codes and ethics. Those that see Bergdahl as guilty reference a litany of first hand accounts and observations establishing his intent to desert and join the enemy; those that embrace his return frame their arguments in terms of forgiveness and an apparent penance that he has had to endure under the hands of his would be captors. Both sides seek to establish an unequivocal truth. It is an unwilling game that the various factions are enlisted in as part of the bigger game created by the political Game Masters. It is a game played not for pieces but for future board positions, reputations and power. While the audience waits eagerly for the next installment of the series, the scriptwriters have already completed this season’s outcome and have begun to craft the next season’s drama.
The Bergdahl event was not miscalculated, nor was any step along the way overlooked. There was a bit of luck involved as with all great performances, but the luck was generated from the mastery of the craft from which the event was born. Consider the act of releasing the prisoners without Congressional approval. Our beloved villains of GITMO were set free to once again reinvigorate the narrative of fear. The Congress has proven itself so dysfunctional that outcomes were easily anticipated: public condemnation, political polarization, and the foreknowledge that there would be little to no consequence or accountability… and of course no matter what is said, a finger would be pointed to establish fault with the Republicans. The script is predictable. All that was needed for the audience to bite was to change a few of the characters and re-sequence some of the events.
Move the story along to the announcement of Bergdahl’s release on the White House lawn with Bergdahl’s parents present. Bergdahl’s father is well known for his anti-American statements. What better character to introduce than a Pashtun speaking hater of the State that is now standing beside the Commander and Chief. For the supporters of Bergdahl it is a foreshadowing of forgiveness and the symbolic return of a lost sheep into the fold; for those standing against Bergdahl it is a bold statement that duty and honor are no longer defined by military service but to values somehow greater than all of us… love for our children. The Pashtun improv was a fanatic bit of comedic timing, effectively driving the wedge deeper between the polarizing sides and speaking to that greater polemic of “we forgive our enemies.” And let us not forgot the removal of “Dad’s” Tweets… likely a little Secret Service quick cleansing as part of the cost of admission to be in the show.
Then there is the dark past of Bergdahl. Did or did he not desert his unit? Can we prove it? Does it even matter now that he has been with an “enemy” for five years? Yes, that same enemy we gave a happy wave and a smile to as we escorted Bergdahl onto the helicopter with little more that a friendly pat down for explosives, fully aware that the images of the Special Operations team would be in the frame of the video the former Taliban captors were filming. We call that guilty by association; yet another master move by the political machine. The message to the domestic audience is that “we are all in this together”; for the Taliban they are able to show that America’s most lethal asset has now been brought to its knees and compliant to the Taliban demands. The game advances, the debate elevates, and the distraction takes a deeper hold into our daily lives.
As the story unfolds, the narratives back home begin to shift almost immediately. From the opening declaration that we were welcoming home a “hero”, the message is quickly revised as soon as the public outcry begins. The narrative transforms to things like “Unfair… I was a SGT and I can’t judge…”, to “we were unaware of his past…” or “it is too early to get into this…” to “I was tortured while in Taliban hands.” The political maneuvering is not only brilliant, it is strides ahead of the audience’s consumption and digestion of the emotions of the event. As the ire builds, the target of the outrage continues to adjust course, moving away from the policto’s to something ever more substantive: the Pentagon and the Army top brass. After all it was their fault this all came to be, right? Never mind that what part politicians have played. When information is involved as the instrument of war, the only thing that matters is perception. Truth is one of those antiquated concepts that just gets in the way. The ratings soar. Our story just won an Emmy for best production and cast.
There is no greater fear for those in politics than accountability. After all, it’s a dirty job, with long thankless hours, stardom, and difficulties mastering scripts and roles for the daily productions of civic soap operas the American public demands. If the audience ratings fall, job security goes with it. Worse, when the audience begins to question the acting, and turns their attention to a competing show, say for example, the military, the political types now face a crisis of control and power. A production like Bergdahl offers its producers opportunity to not only win back fans, but to also create a competing drama that their production can manipulate. Fueling the audience’s conflict between faith and anger with the US military assumes a natural shift in the storyline. As with the Bergdahl show, the new accusations are a built-for-realty TV script that offer the hook for the viewer of being once again personal and true. Mix in a few suggested sprinkles of “cover-up” and “scandal” and viewer ratings for the Bergdahl show soar. It no longer becomes a question of a pilot episode or one-season run, but of several years plus spin-offs. Best of all, that fear for accountability looming in over the head of the public servant is now resolved, taking the political type off the hook.
With a government increasingly accountable only to itself, the act of pillaging its citizens through taxation and regulation to grow power and personal agendas has evolved to high art form. For the political types there remains one outlier of concern: loss of control. With Thailand and all of its sex tourism industry now under military rule, that fear has now manifest within a friendly state into a very real nightmare. One only needs to look under the bed of any political type to find the most read chapter in their coveted book of horrors. Could it happen here? The likely candidate for such an engaging reality show would be the military. After all, they have all of the toys for the finest special effects and action sequences. They have a “cool guy” factor that leaves every political type in envy. They have a loyal audience base, and a public creditability factor that far outpaces that of anyone working on the Hill. All of that translates to ratings that can turn a TV reality series into a Hollywood multi-screen cinematic production. That’s where the Bergdahl show wins again… an Oscar level performance that places our entire military at odds with both itself and the citizens, pitting those themes of honor, duty, and brotherhood against forgiveness, progressive America and its own credibility. Checkmate.
As the story’s climax builds we witness a drama unfold that pushes both its actors and the audience to that uneasy edge of the seat. What will happen next? What will we do if…? What does all of this mean…? Who can I trust? The story plays out as predictable. Sales of prepping supplies, guns and ammo grow. A “new” America is pitted against an America increasingly viewed as obsolete and even ignorant. People are pitted against people, neighbor against neighbor. The distraction is now complete. Back on the Hill, the Pentagon budgets get placed under the axe again, DHS continues its expansion to protect us from the ever-growing threat of “domestic terror”’ and we are reminded of the dangers of living our daily lives in the “land of free.” (Here is where we remind the audience of those five evils we “had to give away” from the bowels of GITMO.) The Legislative branch, consumed with bipartisan agendas, continues its cycle of accuse or defend while accomplishing little. The prisoner exchange has provided the public with yet another example of their current ineptitude. The Judicial stays clear of the fight; “this is not an issue for the courts at this time.” Finally a new protagonist arises from the chaos… The Executive Order, which now reigns supreme.
All the while, the Bergdahl show keeps us captivated as we lose interest in all but our work, our day-to-day, and the many drama’s we cannot control. Quietly the board is cleared and the game set to begin anew as the series plays out towards a predictable end. As for impeachment, that show will be launched by the Republicans. It won’t get more than a pilot run.
About the author:
Scott Kesterson is founder and CEO of Spatial Terra, LLC, a firm focused on strategies for pro-active risk mitigation, market entry and strategic positioning. Kesterson spent over 3.5 years in Afghanistan working at village level as a documentary filmmaker, and later a cultural advisor to various Special Operations elements. He was a regular blogger for Huffington Post during his embeds of 2006-2008. He was award an Emmy in 2007 for best photography for combat footage filmed in Sangine, Afghanistan, and was nominated for a Peabody in 2008. Kesterson’s three part film series, Bards of War, analyzing the narrative of war from the soldiers perspective in currently in post-production.