Does Bowe Bergdahl’s Desertion Charge Change Anything?

U.S. Army/Getty Images

U.S. Army/Getty Images

Bowe Bergdahl, an American Sgt. who was captured during his time overseas in Afghanistan and held captive for five years, made headlines last year after he was traded for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. The controversial decision from President Barack Obama, which some argued was tantamount to negotiations with terrorists, became increasingly divisive as discussions on the events surrounding Bergdahl’s capture unfolded. Accounts of fellow soldiers stationed with Bergdahl, and excerpts from letters and journal entries suggested that Bergdahl had intentionally deserted his post, leaving members of his unit unprotected.

After his initial return, the discussion petered out to an extent, because Bergdahl was in recovery, back on base, and going through a re-entry process with the military while investigations into his capture and events leading up to his departure from his station were investigated carefully. News released on his condition was simple and limited, and those objections made to the trade were left with little fuel given the permanence of Obama’s decision after the trade took effect. Now, two major items have been released that will undoubtedly re-open the debate on Bergdahl’s return.

The first piece of information is that Bergdahl’s departure from his outpost has led him to be charged with desertion and misbehavior, according to a statement from Col. Daniel King, a the U.S. Army Forces Command Spokesman, accused of “intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place.” The charge will be taken before a court and has yet to be decided on. The result could be a full life sentence, and he may be tried before a military court if it is found to be appropriate. The second piece of information is a release from Bergdahl himself, and is a description of his five years of captivity, and his treatment during this time. The description is brisk and short, two pages in length, but disturbing, to say the least. He describes months spent tied to a bed, kept in a cage, with infections, bed sores, and wounds from the shackles and chains. He speaks of beatings and psychological torture, as well as five years of isolation. “I was continuously shown Taliban videos. Told I was going to be executed. Told I was never going back. Told I would leave the next day, and the next day told I would be there for 30 years. Told I was going to die there. Told to kill myself. Told I would have my ears and nose cut off,” wrote Bergdahl.

Unsurprisingly, news that Bergdahl may be found guilty of desertion — not surprising given some of his letters and statements from his fellow soldiers — has re-sparked questions from some as to whether he should have been brought back in the first place. This argument needs to be given a degree of nuance, first of all. There are those who are concerned for the safety of other soldiers if the non-negotiation safeguard put in place fails to be credible to terrorists after Obama’s actions. This has a degree of merit, but mostly from a political science and game theory perspective, not as a reflection on Bergdahl’s future. It’s the argument House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ascribes to, standing behind Bergdahl’s rights as an American soldier, while still voicing criticism of President Obama. He stated, according to the International Business Times, that “Every American is innocent until proven guilty, and we all wanted to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home,” but that his “chief concern” was more for the fact of the exchange than Bergdahl’s record. “Knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists is one of our greatest protections, and now it is compromised.”

As stances go, this one is fairly measured and careful. It doesn’t suggest that Bergdahl was less deserving of coming home, but takes a more sympathetic and supportive approach, while stressing national security. Not all opponents have been so diplomatic. Founder of RealClearPolitics, Tom Bevan, argues that given the possibility Bergdahl will spend his entire life in captivity anyways, the fact that five Taliban leaders are free makes the exchange an unhappy ending for America. Here we have two counter arguments. First, the fact that life in prison is by far preferable to death, isolation, and torture. There is also the dignity that comes with punishing one’s own, rather than leaving an American soldier to inhumane punishment. And — not counting the fact that Bergdahl has not yet even been found officially guilty — there is also the argument that, given the treatment suffered by Bergdahl, further punishment may not be appropriate.

What is the purpose of punishing deserters? In large part, to deter similar behavior. There is some merit to the argument that Bergdahl has likely already served the equivalent of his time — if not more — and has certainly demonstrated to potential deserters the dangers of not following protocol, of leaving one’s team, and what kind of dangers he was putting both fellow soldiers and himself in, if indeed a court finds that he did intentionally leave his base to desert. He has demonstrated to all just what kind of danger that can lead to, and has more than suffered for his actions.

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