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.