What Bowe Bergdahl Deserves
My latest for The National Interest, “If Bowe Bergdahl Deserted, Prosecute Him,” is up.
Nathan Bradley Bethea, a former Army infantry officer who “served in the same battalion in Afghanistan and participated in the attempts to retrieve [Bergdahl] throughout the summer of 2009,” claims that “every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth. And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
This seems to be the prevailing judgment of those in a position to know the facts.
For the past four decades, we have had an all-volunteer force and we have long since come to see all who serve as heroes. The American public, which feels a twinge of guilt that others risk so much while they enjoy the fruits of freedom at home, reflexively Support the Troops. The politicians who pander to them are loathe to burst their bubble.
Considering the depths to which the popular view of the military sank as the Vietnam War drew to its end, the pendulum swinging a bit too far in the opposite direction is a problem about which I won’t complain too much. But the fact of the matter is that not every person who dons a military uniform and deploys to combat is a hero. If it turns out that Bergdahl’s former comrades-in-arms are right and he did in fact desert his post that night—getting at least six American soldiers killed as a direct result—then supporting the troops means prosecuting him to the full extent allowable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The piece has been somewhat overtaken by events. Since I wrote the piece Monday afternoon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has announced that the Army will indeed investigate Bergdahl.
Additionally, as Josh Foust pointed out to me via Twitter, while Bergdahl’s comrades seem to universally think that he’s a deserter and that he got a bunch of people killed looking for him, the latter, at least, is by no means a known known.
Some soldiers have also contended that the Taliban, knowing the units were out searching extensively for Sergeant Bergdahl, chose July 4, 2009, to attack another combat outpost, which was nearly overrun and several soldiers were killed. But American military officers said they saw no evidence that the Taliban started the attack on the outpost because they thought everyone would be out searching for Sergeant Bergdahl.
A second former senior military officer, who also was briefed on the Bergdahl investigation, said there was no direct evidence that diversion of surveillance aircraft or troops to search for Sergeant Bergdahl encouraged the Taliban attacks, or left other American troops vulnerable. “This was a dangerous region in Afghanistan in the middle of the ‘fighting season,’ ” the officer said in an email, adding that although the search “could have created some opportunities for the enemy,” it is “difficult to establish a direct cause and effect.”
A review of the database of casualties in the Afghan war suggests that Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics appear to be blaming him for every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance.
As noted in the piece, the administration and the brass have taken the right tone on this. Bergdahl absolutely deserves the presumption of innocence and due process. And it’s quite possible that the people closest to the situation, Bergdahl’s comrades-in-arms, are too emotional to render fair judgments.
My larger point remains intact, however. Not every soldier is a hero. Not even every POW. If Bergdahl indeed deserted his post, he deserves to be prosecuted, regardless of whatever hardships he endured in Taliban hands. At a minimum, he should be dishonorably discharged, losing forever the right to claim status as a veteran. If his actions led to the deaths of American soldiers, then he deserves the maximum punishment permissible under the law.