The court-martial charges announced last week against Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl cast some new light on the soldier’s conduct, as well as the administration’s decision to give up five Guantanamo detainees to secure his release. In neither case is the new light flattering.
The Army charged him with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the latter of which carries a penalty of life imprisonment. The case goes back to June 2009, when he walked away from his base in Afghanistan and was taken captive by the Taliban and held for five years.
His lawyer said Bergdahl had no intention of permanently leaving but merely hoped “to find a high-ranking officer to complain about serious problems he was having in his unit.” Seriously?
After a thorough review, the Army concluded there was no excuse for him to leave his post in a war zone. It also took into account that by triggering a wide search for him, Bergdahl put many other soldiers in needless peril. Whether any were killed as a direct result is in dispute.
A bigger issue is how dangerous the swap that brought him home was. The five men released from Guantanamo were high-level operatives who could be helpful to the Taliban if they return to the fight. And they could return to the fight: Under the terms of the deal, they were sent to Qatar, which promised to keep them from traveling abroad for a year. That time is up in a couple of months.
President Barack Obama acknowledged the risks at the time of the trade. “We have released, both under my administration and previous administrations, a large number of former Taliban fighters, some of whom will return to the battlefield,” he said. “But by definition, if we in fact are ending a war, then there’s going to be a process in which some of those individuals are going to be released.”
Of course, we haven’t ended a war. Last week, Obama announced that he would keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2015, aborting his original plan to withdraw nearly half of them this year. The war is still raging, the outcome is uncertain and Afghan soldiers and civilians are dying at the hands of the Taliban.
The administration felt an obligation to retrieve Bergdahl, even though it knew he had chosen to leave the base. We have no quarrel with the idea that the U.S. government should make a high priority of saving captured military personnel, even when they are at fault.
But it’s hard now to justify the Rose Garden photo op the president staged with the soldier’s parents in announcing the deal — or National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s proclamation that he “served the United States with honor and distinction.”
Some experts say the military, recognizing the ordeal the soldier endured while being held by the Taliban, will settle for a dishonorable discharge that deprives him of back pay and other benefits. That sounds like an affront to the soldiers who put themselves at risk to search for him.
Those who join the military accept a grave obligation to perform their duties no matter the circumstances, even at the cost of their lives. Thousands have fulfilled that obligation and paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan. If Bergdahl ends up spending the rest of his life behind bars, he has no one but himself to blame.