Climate change. The national debt. Race relations. The Islamic State. Yes, we’ve got plenty of big problems to worry about. But indulge me 600 words about a small problem that, beyond its politics and certain vague principles, matters to almost no one except his family: Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Bergdahl is the hapless, troubled soldier who wandered away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured and held in rough captivity by Taliban allies until his release in 2014. He was in the news last week when Gen. Robert Abrams, head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., ordered that Bergdahl face a court-martial for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy.” The Hailey native was arraigned on those charges Tuesday.
Abrams rejected the findings of the presiding officer of a preliminary hearing on Bergdahl, who recommended that he not be subjected to jail time or a punitive discharge. If the court-martial ordered by Abrams finds Bergdahl guilty of the most serious charges, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
I’ve written about Bergdahl before. In 2014, some critics hit President Barack Obama hard for releasing five captured Taliban from Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl, preferring to leave the deserter to rot among his captors.
But the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture were unknown, and while the swap may have been unsavory, I argued that every captured American soldier has the right to repatriation, as well as the opportunity to present evidence and defend himself in person.
At the time, the president’s options were limited, and I suspect that he would have been criticized with equal intensity if he had chosen to leave an American soldier behind. So the prisoner exchange was a tough decision, but a correct one.
Besides, whether you think it was a good deal, Bergdahl cannot be punished for the way in which he was rescued.
In April of this year I argued for leniency for Bergdahl, noting that despite his discharge for psychological reasons after 26 days of basic training in the Coast Guard, the Army inducted him under a special waiver that ignored evidence of his instability.
Then the Army subjected Bergdahl to the psychological rigors of combat in a dubious war that by 2009 America was only vaguely interested in. Many of his most outspoken critics have no personal experience with the demands of combat or the challenges of military life for an unstable kid who grew up in the wilds of Idaho. Their lack of compassion stems from a lack of imagination about the realities of army life.
Now Bergdahl is being used for political purposes. Presidential candidate Donald Trump scores points by calling him a “dirty, rotten traitor.” Mike Huckabee said that the Bergdahl trade “adds one more national security stupidity notch to Obama’s belt.” Sen. John McCain, with a little more credibility, says that he wants to hold congressional hearings on the Bergdahl case unless he’s punished.
In short, it’s easy to focus the anger of voters who have never been in combat themselves around a case such as Bergdahl’s by appealing to their sense of duty and patriotism.
But Bergdahl is just a minor sub-cog in America’s struggling Mideast policy machine. Mistakes were made. With his ability to assess his own fitness for army life impaired by his mental instability, Bergdahl made a mistake when he volunteered to serve. And the Army made a mistake by inducting Bergdahl on a special waiver.
Bergdahl’s biggest mistake, of course, was failing to do his duty in Afghanistan. Some punishment — in addition to five years of torture and deprivation among the Taliban — may be appropriate. But life in prison?
The biggest mistake of all, however, was our mismanaged war in Afghanistan, which got off to a good start but was subverted by our misadventure in Iraq and which was languishing for a lack of a clear policy by the time Bergdahl reached the front lines.
Everyone makes mistakes. And sometimes people have to be punished. But as long as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are out of prison, Bowe Bergdahl should not be in.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org