FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Case of Bowe Bergdahl: Military Justice in a Highly Charged Political Season

In June 2009, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walked away from a remote military base in eastern Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban. He spent the next five years in captivity, a period during which he was repeatedly tortured.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s enlistment in the army was not his first experience with the US military. In 2006, he washed out of Coast Guard basic training with a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder with depression,” (“New Documents Reveal Army Once Pursued Softer Approach on Bergdahl,” The New York Times, March 16, 2016). At the time when he walked off of his base in Afghanistan, the sergeant was diagnosed as having “schizotypal personality disorder” in a later psychiatric assessment of that period. That the army allowed Bergdahl to enlist following his first diagnosis is reason for grave concern in the  history of this case. Two years after his Coast Guard experience he received what was then called  a “waiver,” allowing him to enlist with concerns that should have raised red flags for the military. At the time of his enlistment in the army, that service had serious enlistment quota problems.

In 2014, the sergeant was “swapped” for five Taliban prisoners who were released from Guantanamo Bay in a prisoner exchange that was approved by President Obama, but was strongly condemned by many Republicans in Congress.

The investigation of Sergeant Bergdahl’s disappearance, led by Major General Kenneth R. Dahl, reached conclusions that were “far milder and more sympathetic tone than Army commanders” who are now pursuing charges that may send the sergeant to military prison for life. These charges were different from the original possible charges that included being AWOL, desertion, and fraudulent enlistment. Along with the discussion of the possible original charges against the sergeant, the investigating general, Dahl, noted that “You were one of the best soldiers, arguably the best soldier in your platoon,” up until the time that the sergeant left his unit. He now faces a more serious charge of “endangering the troops sent to search for him.”

Sergeant Bergdahl wanted to create a “crisis” when he left his unit to report what he believed were “dangerous leadership problem in his unit.” His departure led him on an 18-mile hike toward a nearby base to seek “an audience” with a general. He was captured by the Taliban during that trek.

In December of 2015, General Robert B. Abrams ordered that Bergdahl face a general court-martial on both the desertion and misbehavior before the enemy charges. The general rejected the recommendations of a colonel from the earlier investigation, which suggested a punishment that could have resulted in a maximum of one year in jail along with a dishonorable discharge.

In a highly charged and ugly political season, it was all but inevitable that Sergeant Bergdahl’s case would become highly politicized. Last year, Senator John McCain, a leading Republican in the Senate, stated that the sergeant was “clearly a deserter.” That charge is hardly supported by the facts of the case since it cannot be proved that the sergeant left his unit without the intent of ever returning. His return was made impossible by the Taliban’s capture and torture. At least as serious was the comment of presidential candidate Donald Trump, who accused Sergeant Bergdahl of being a “traitor.”

General Abrams, who now heads up the case, could ultimately be considered for any future military promotion by Senator McCain, in McCain’s role as the chairperson of the Armed Services Committee.

In a season when the political becomes theater, and when military actions remain as prominent and prolific as they were when the sergeant enlisted in the military for the second time, the old refrain that military justice is to justice, as military music is to music, ought to give anyone pause hoping that in Sergeant Bergdahl’s case cooler heads will prevail and the accepted wisdom of enough punishment being enough becomes widely shared. Nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan, and with a nation on permanent war footing, the chance of Sergeant Bergdahl’s case being considered outside of the turbulent winds of the presidential primary season and the general election are highly unlikely.  In this highly charged political atmosphere, the chance of justice prevailing is remote.  Determining the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan at the time of Bergdahl’s absence from his unit are impossible to assess since this war is only covered by  major media outlets when an event of major proportions takes place.

The details of how Bowe Bergdahl might be punished are worth comparing to the actual punishments resulting from the assault on My Lai in Vietnam in March 1968 and its aftermath. About 500 unarmed men, women, and children were killed in that massacre by US forces. The only officer to face a military trial for the atrocities of My Lai, Lieutenant William Calley, could have faced the death penalty for the 109 Vietnamese he had been charged with murdering. Ultimately, he was convicted of killing 22 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. That sentence was reduced to 20 years and then further reduced to 10 years. Calley’s final time spent under house arrest amounted to three and a half years, at which time he was released by a federal court. Bergdahl has never been charged with killing a single individual or responsibility for the death of troops involved in the search for him as the result of his leaving his post. No one was killed during the search for the sergeant.

There is an exchange between the fictional characters Private Prewitt and his commander, Captain Holmes, in the movie From Here to Eternity (1953), in which the captain explains to Prewitt that in the military it isn’t the individual that matters. While Holmes’ sentiment is later contradicted by one of Holmes’ superiors, the relative importance of an individual in the military  is a concept that is often lost in the dispensing of military justice and the ultimate objective of any military service, which is to totally eliminate opposing forces or bring those forces to their proverbial knees.

While the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are wars of different times and very different causes, the punishment that Sergeant Bergdahl may suffer and the punishment William Calley did suffer are worth considering, as are the goals and consequences of military actions.

 

More articles by:

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail