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Will the Military Throw the Book at Bowe Bergdahl?

Photo by United States Army | CC by 2.0

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is likely to get a concentrated taste of military “justice” when he is sentenced later this month for two violations of military law. On Monday, October 16, 2017, he pleaded guilty before a military court to “desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.” Bergdahl claims that he left his unit in the field in Paktika province of Afghanistan in 2009 for what he said was an effort to report a “leadership failure” in his unit. He was subsequently captured by the Taliban and tortured. He repeatedly attempted to escape from captivity, and was ultimately freed in a trade for Taliban prisoners after five years of captivity. He has spent the last three years as a clerk at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and was charged in 2015 with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Readers will recall the photographs and news accounts of Bergdahl’s parents at the White House where President Obama explained that the U.S. never leaves prisoners of war behind in defending the prisoner exchange.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump stated, or more accurately ranted, categorizing Bergdahl as a “dirty rotten traitor.” The latter was a curious response from a person who never spent a single day in the military, received a diagnosis of bone spurs that excused him from the military during the Vietnam War, and could best be described as a “sunshine patriot.” While tens of thousands of U.S. lives were ended or placed into years of turmoil and pain as a result of the Vietnam War, Trump did not break a sweat. In Southeast Asia, millions died, as the real estate mogul was being groomed for better and greater things. But, with militarism and the expansion of endless wars, and the explosion of profits and power by the military-industrial complex, the sunshine patriot and commander-in-chief Donald Trump just might get retribution in the case of Bergdahl.

Trump has delegated his authority as commander-in-chief to the military. What then can be expected from the military judge at Fort Bragg, North Carolina when sentencing is passed on Bergdahl? Bergdahl said of his actions while in Afghanistan: “At the time I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations… It’s very inexcusable” (“Bowe Bergdahl Pleads Guilty in Desertion Case, Huffington Post, October 16, 2017). Soldiers searching for Bergdahl after he left his post were wounded. Even though Bergdahl has spent the last three years in a state of semi-confinement while awaiting trial and sentencing, the case of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning might be an indicator of what to expect in terms of a possible sentence for Bergdahl. Manning received a 35-year sentence for transmitting classified information (later commuted by Barack Obama), but Manning, although having served in a war zone, was not a combat soldier. Several soldiers who have fled to Canada in the past several years rather than serve in a war zone or be redeployed to a war zone have been sentenced to relatively short terms of confinement. Bergdahl could be sentenced for five years on the charge of desertion and up to life in prison for the charge of misbehavior before the enemy.  The time that Bergdahl has spent as a clerk at the base in Texas since his release by the Taliban may or may not be considered in any sentencing.

These are possible sentencing considerations that may be factored into any punishment Bergdahl receives based on his scheduled October 23, 2017 sentencing hearing:

+ A state of hyper-militarism exists in the U.S. and has been a factor since the attacks of September 2001.

+ Bergdahl signed up for the military and as a volunteer the fact of his reaction to the war zone in Afghanistan will most likely not be taken into account in his sentencing. The latter is a premise as old as war itself and is why soldiers who make a claim (Bergdahl has made no such claim) for conscientious objector status have an uphill battle while in the military.

+ The commanding officer in this case has a military career to consider and leniency may be considered as a negative within the military environment.

+ The Trump administration and its electoral base are highly militaristic and Trump has given unprecedented authority to military commanders in conducting operations in the many and endless wars the U.S. now fights. It is almost inconceivable that the value of mercy and reconciliation will be exhibited in Bergdahl’s sentencing, but it is an outcome for which to hold out hope.

+ When Bowe Bergdahl left his post, the war in Afghanistan had been going on for eight years. It has now been 16 years since that war was declared in answer to the 2001 attacks and Donald Trump has announced the second troop surge of the war, the first having taken place during the administration of Barack Obama. With no end in sight, massive outlays of money have been spent on a war that has brought little in the way of tangible security or improvement to that society.

The mass media pays scant attention to endless wars unless they furnish a quickly forgotten flashpoint, or raise moral questions that cannot be ignored.

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

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