I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake.
— Bowe Bergdahl’s testimony in his court martial
Charging a man with murder in Vietnam is like charging someone for speeding at the Indianapolis 500.
– From Apocalypse Now
Obviously, to ask who endangered soldiers more, President George W. Bush or Bowe Bergdahl, is a rhetorical question. The real issue is whether a Dishonorable Discharge, a demotion and a fine is enough punishment for Bo Bergdahl. It’s clear by now it’s out-of-bounds (poor etiquette) to suggest our major leaders should be held accountable for bad military decisions that put soldiers in harms way and cost lives. It’s a variant of the bumper sticker, “Kill one person, it’s murder; kill 100,000, it’s foreign policy.” Accountability is like gravity; it slips and falls and tends to find the most susceptible person or entity that can be turned into a receptacle for the blame. Naturally, you wave the flag like crazy while guiding the blame downward. Unless, of course, you were Japanese at the height of their failed, imperial thrust into the world; then, you made martial sounds as you sliced your guts open and a loyal factotum lopped your head off. There’s a certain honor in that.
The question of moral and political accountability is a perennial one. It’s hard to find anyone in either major party who still holds on to the idea the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by George W. Bush — the “war president” and “the decider” — was anything but a terrible foreign policy decision. As the younger President Bush put it: “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” Those of us who cried out in vain from the beginning that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong and could lead nowhere but to even worse disasters now see it as a decision that unleashed a debacle that keeps on paying dangerous dividends. President Bush ducked under the radar after his part in it was over and started doing what he probably should have done from the beginning: He painted not-so-bad, primitive paintings of veterans, dogs and his toes in the bathtub.
The lack of accountability at the top is especially acute right now when nuclear war looms over us vis-a-vis North Korea. Not only does the current commander-in-chief not accept accountability — “the buck” no longer stops in the Oval Office — he’s a master in the cultural realm he flourishes in at finding and flogging scapegoats. His “base” will let him get away with, as he famously put it, shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. In Bergdahl’s case, he wanted the man executed. If he had his way, it would be something produced by Faye Dunaway’s character in the film Network: “The Execution Hour”.
We don’t have much to rejoice over these days, but it seems appropriate to send out three-cheers to Army Colonel Jeffery R. Nance, the judge who handed down the Solomon-like Bergdahl sentence and who, thus, has elevated himself to the much-vaunted position of “adult in the room.” He’s especially worth honoring when you consider the absurdities going on in Guantanamo, where a Colonel in charge of trying one of the bombers of the USS Cole put a Brigadier General in jail for contempt because he would not go along with an outrageous decision. The action was so authoritarian in nature and the flak so loud, that General John Baker, the number two lawyer in the Marine Corps, has been freed. So let’s give a shout-out to both Colonel Nance and General Baker for having the backbone to exhibit modern “profiles in courage” in the context of post-9/11 military courts going rogue. Given the incredible regime of secrecy citizens live under and the gang sitting in the White House, these days it’s individual cogs like these brave officers who stand between us and a tyrannical point-of-no-return.
We might do a bit of ju-jitsu on Nancy Reagan and encourage more people in the system to “Just Say No!” Mutiny as national service.
The Bergdahl case is especially instructive.
Here you have a fellow who joined the US Army who ends up in Afghanistan. He was involved in enough “combat” to earn a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB), something that is not awarded lightly. In fact, Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal, famous for The Surge in Iraq, did not have a CIB; instead, he wore an Expert Infantry Badge, which meant he was very good at being an infantryman, maybe even a genius at managing infantrymen, but he was never in real combat. So Bergdahl was not a slouch in Afghanistan. Was he mentally not the most together person? Maybe. Did he have some kind of gripe about his superior out in the field that he deluded himself into thinking it was a wise decision to walk to the main base through hostile country to report it? That seems to be the case. The merits of his grievance aside, who out there thinks, once he was captured for straying from his unit, that anyone in the military command was going to give any credence to his grievance? At that point, the gravity rule for accountability factored into the case and Bergdahl was dog meat in the chain of command.
Under the Obama administration, martial pride and the political value of blood vengeance were not the top priorities; diplomacy was more important to Obama. And though it would be wrong to say “peace” was President Obama’s main goal (he did a lot to sustain perennial war and to increase drone killings), he wasn’t so enamored with calling for blood vengeance as a goose-stepping political tactic. In fact, it’s interesting to ponder what might have been Bergdahl’s sentence under President Obama’s more “progressive,” less blood-thirsty regime. Not under pressure to counter an outrageous White House, might a small prison time have been the moderate order of the day? Under Obama, a profile in courage posture might not have been an issue. We can speculate ‘til the cows come home; the point is, there may be a welcomed backfire-effect in the system thanks to Donald Trump’s love for viciousness. From the vantage point of an ex-enlisted-man nobody, I wonder if we’re seeing an upper-level brass version of the response one often heard from soldiers in Vietnam when they did something officially against the rules: “Hey! Send me to Vietnam.”
Decent, ordinary citizens doomed to watch the Trump administration and the US Congress stick it to them in broad daylight can only hope something is afoot and there are more of these profiles in courage within the system. They may not represent a panacea for the future, and let’s not delude ourselves, they certainly don’t represent a leftist upheaval or even reform. But, while we await the revolution, they do suggest sanity and maturity does exist among the energized, goose-stepping militarists.