339. Return (IV)
In 2009, Bowe Bergdahl, a minor American soldier, walked off his base into the Afghan mountains; he intended, so he said, to walk to Pakistan. He never made it that far. Bergdahl was taken prisoner by the Taliban and his case became a saga, eventually resolved, in 2014, by a prisoner swap. Bergdahl was exchanged for five senior Taliban commanders, and his case provoked complaints from the American right about betrayal, with the hardest opinion maintaining that Bergdahl should be executed for treason.
Bergdahl came from a tiny town in Idaho, Hailey. Its population is slightly under 8,000 people and Bergdahl was homeschooled before he began various adventures, adventures that led to the Coast Guard—he was ejected for mental instability—and Buddhist meditation retreats; he was also introduced to tarot cards in a Ketchum tea shop, tea being a spiritual drink par excellence. In Afghanistan, Bergdahl showed remarkable interest in the locals; and, unlike his fellows soldiers, attempted to learn their languages. He was marked out for being withdrawn and a loner—and he carried within him a warrior ethos. In his youth, he had an interest in fencing, an individualistic and quasi-aristocratic sport.
Perhaps this was partly fantasy, but it shows his general attitude to life: when he arrived in the military his drill instructor judged him ready to go from day one. Bergdahl was deeply disillusioned by the incompetence, cynicism, and dishonesty he found around him in US military operations in Afghanistan; in a final communication with his parents before he vanished from his base he lambasted the cynicism and dysfunctional culture within the military.
Now, as it happens, Bergdahl shared his tiny birthplace with another notable man who would come to widely be regarded as a traitor during wartime: the poet, Ezra Pound. We find in Pound and Bergdahl two instantiations of the American ideal: self-reliant men before nature secured by their God, their guns, and their gold. Of course, small communities like Hailey, barely settled for a hundred years, retain this sensibility much more than New York or Boston; so this outlook was in the air for both men. Bergdahl felt much more kinship with the tribal valley people he had been sent to fight—having grown up off-grid in a valley—than he did with the multiethnic and, as recent events have revealed, decadent American military. Nobody is more off-grid than the way most Afghans live.
In both men, we find a concern with the value of things and a spiritual sensibility; indeed, Berghdahl’s interest in Buddhism dovetails with Pound’s own extensive translations of Chinese texts by Confucius. Pound was particularly obsessed by the question of sound money and usury—he would have undoubtedly hodled Bitcoin. The clue is in his name: Ezra, a biblical priest-scribe; Pound, the monetary unit and weight. Ezra Pound was the prophet of sound money; and Bergdahl demanded integrity in the American military as Pound demanded it in currency. Pound’s relation to money was probably formed by personal experience; his grandfather ran a logging company and coined his own company money—so Pound had a family reference as to what it was like to live without a state monopoly on the money supply, without the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England.
In short, we have in Pound and Bergdahl two genuine American dissidents who represent, in my view, as an outsider, the genuine American ideal—the barbarian and vital America, if you will. A country formed by pioneer self-reliance, real money (them thar gold bars, kiddo), and a spiritual sensibility. As with all dissidents, there were calls for them to be strung up by the cronies in Washington who—to put it mildly—do not instantiate the American ideal, being funny money in human form. Of course, both Bergdahl and Pound were regarded as slightly mad: Bergdahl discharged from the Coast Guard for peculiarities and Pound condemned to a mental hospital for a protracted period, but perhaps integrity can look very much like madness.