The report on the investigation into US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s capture and imprisonment is due to be released… well, any day now. If the report confirms what many in the military seem to think they already know, then if there is any justice in the system SGT Bergdahl must go to jail.
What is it exactly that veterans all over the country believe the report will contain? Well, many vets, including some who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan, say that then-PFC Bowe Bergdahl left his combat outpost in the middle of the night, without orders and without permission, intending to never return.
Simply put, he deserted his post in time of war, an offense punishable by death under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He then ended up in the hands of the ruthless Haqqani network — a top-flight terrorist organization nominally subordinate to the Taliban — but actually run by Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA. While in their custody, Bergdahl assisted in production of anti-US propaganda, and was apparently quite cozy with the operational leader of the Haqqani Network, Badruddin Haqqani himself.
It seems pretty clear to me that Bergdahl deserted. He is a criminal, not some kind of hero. He ran away from his unit, his personal obligations, and his country, and he collaborated with the enemy. If that conclusion is not supported by the evidence contained in the report when it gets released, I’ll gladly print a prompt and enthusiastic retraction. But based on what I know both from what I’ve seen in print and what I experienced in Afghanistan, I’m pretty comfortable in leveling accusations of desertion and collaboration against a fellow veteran.
This is where Bergdahl apologists usually chime in with something along the lines of, “If you were being held captive by the Haqqanis you’d collaborate too!” Having been through several different captivity training (SERE) schools, I concede this is probably true. Conditions in captivity can break the hardest man . . . or make him end up dead. If his conduct in captivity were the only issue, I wouldn’t be in a rush to judgment.
What really matters in all of this is how he got captured in the first place. While it’s impossible for me to say what I would and would not do if I were a prisoner of war, there is something I can say with certainty: I wouldn’t have deserted in the first place. How am I so sure about that? Because I served in Afghanistan many times, and managed to never desert, or even think about deserting — not even once. So spare me the “you can’t judge because you weren’t in his shoes” fallacy and the “he only did what he had to do to survive” nonsense. This whole thing hinges upon a deliberate and selfish act committed by Bergdahl himself.
As a nation, and especially as a military, we spent a lot of time, effort, and money getting Bergdahl back. Lives and careers were at risk. And now the world knows that we DO in fact negotiate with terrorists in order to get hostages back.
Look, we agree that getting Bergdahl back was the right thing to do. I said so myself. Was it worth ransoming five of the hardest, most irreconcilable members of the Taliban and paying a huge sum of money too? I don’t think so. I would have rather all those resources be spent securing the release of another veteran, former Army Ranger Peter Kassig, a man served honorably and didn’t desert his country in a time of war.
If the pending report was properly conducted, I suspect it will show unequivocally that SGT Bowe Bergdahl is a deserter and a collaborator. At the very minimum, it will show that he did NOT comport himself with “honor and distinction” either before or after he was captured, despite what the Obama administration would have us believe.
He should pay for what he did with a stint in Leavenworth. He should also forfeit all of the pay and allowances he received while he was in captivity, and he should be reduced back to the rank of PFC. His capture did NOT occur in the line of duty. He was promoted in captivity, without having to go through the promotion board required of all of the rest of his peers. Had a desertion in time of war been on his record, he would never have been allowed to proceed into the noncommissioned officer ranks. He shouldn’t be among them now.
There is also a question of equity: in a comparable case, a West Point lieutenant deserted his stateside unit and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. After serving his time in the Legion, he returned home, faced a court martial, and is serving a four-year sentence. Bergdahl, in contrast, defected to the enemy, disgraced himself in captivity, and walks around the US not only a free man, but a free man still wearing a US Army uniform.
As I said in my article about the West Point defector, 2LT Lawrence Franks, there is a huge difference between deserting “to fight” the enemy, like Franks did, and deserting “to” the enemy, as did Bergdahl. To me, the five years he spent in the company of the Taliban does not count towards his US punishment. Yes, he was held against his will as a direct result of wanton negligence on his part and due to his own actions. As the saying goes, “play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
Whatever the report says, Bergdahl’s treatment will send a message. If he is exonerated, many people (including me) owe him an apology. But I’m willing to stake my professional reputation that it won’t happen. He will be found on the charge of desertion, and everything past that will be murky and covered with political doublespeak. He’ll be eased out of the Army with something considerably better than the dishonorable discharge he so richly deserves, and will most likely start thinking up ways to spend that 6-figure book advance that someone will doubtless offer. Meanwhile, the damage he caused will go unpunished.
To make it right Bergdahl must go to jail inside the US, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen. For one thing, the President is too heavily vested. It was on his personal intervention that the five Taliban commanders were released and the huge ransom was paid. To have Bergdahl imprisoned in the US will be a nightmare for the President politically. Instead of doubling down on the initial mistake, it would be so much better to openly discuss it and admit his actions were wrong. I would respect a president who can acknowledge his own fallibility far more than one who is wrong but refuses to admit it.
Aiding and abetting the effort to get the Bergdahl situation swept under the rug will be the Pentagon, which is weary of the whole situation and just wants Bergdahl to go away. But we owe it to our veterans and to our nation to send a message, that troops will be held responsible for their personal misconduct. We did it in the case of 2LT Franks, we should do the same with SGT Bergdahl.
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