I noted yesterday that the upper brass and the grunts had a very different take on Bergdahl. That has become even more clear. The national security establishment, including both the civilian and military sides of the Pentagon, seems quite pleased with developments, and is more than willing to gloss over the circumstances by which Berghdahl fell into Taliban hands. Some are even willing to engage in a wholesale whitewash, most notably the execrable Susan Rice (no shock there), who says flat out that Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction” and was “captured on the battlefield”. She should really join the band Say Anything.
Many US soldiers currently in Afghanistan are more ambivalent. The circumstances of his capture sit uneasily with them.
Then there are those who who served with Bergdahl, or who were involved in the frantic operations mounted to find him after his disappearance. Very little ambivalence there. The consensus is that he is a deserter.
What’s more, there is considerable anger among those who were engaged in the search because people died as a direct result of Bergdahl’s disappearance. That people died searching for him is not in dispute. Six soldiers were killed on operations to try to find him. Moreover, it is possible that his disappearance indirectly killed Americans because resources (air support, drones, etc.) were diverted to the mission to find him, making other bases that were attacked more vulnerable. Then there is the issue of whether Bergdahl provided information or other support to the Taliban that cost American lives (though this is more speculative.) (Or maybe not so speculative.)
This is why it is imperative that there be a formal proceeding, along the lines of what is set out in the Code of Conduct, to determine just how Bergdahl wound up in enemy hands, and what he did while a captive. Yes, Bergdahl is home. Yes, his parents can rejoice in his return. But there are mothers, fathers, wives, and children of at least six American servicemen who will never experience such a reunion. Because of what Bergdahl did: there is no way to escape that fundamental fact. They deserve the truth about what he did. And they deserve the knowledge that if Bergdahl deliberately abandoned his unit, thereby setting in train the events that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones, that he has been held accountable.
In other words, this isn’t about Bob Bergdahl. It is about Clayton Bowden, Kurt Curtiss, Darynn Andrews, Michael Murprhey, Matthew Martinek, and Morris Walker.
There are stories circulating that he did not desert, e.g., that he was captured while at the latrine. I consider this unlikely: note that not one other US soldier was captured in Afghanistan (a remarkable feat), meaning that if Bergdahl was indeed captured without his intending to fall into enemy hands he was truly the very unlucky and unique exception that proves the rule. (There are other reasons to disbelieve the latrine story, which originated in Taliban radio chatter.) Again, let’s assemble the evidence, including his testimony, and decide accordingly.
I am not prejudging the results of any such inquiry, or the appropriate punishment. What I am saying is that there must be a formal fact finding procedure with legal consequences based on these findings. (I note that the Army had previously determined that Bergdahl walked away. But it did not have his testimony, obviously. Now we can get it.) The results could range from a commendation (in the unlikely event that the story as we know it is all wrong), to dishonorable discharge, to something more severe. The torments he might have suffered over the past five years may be grounds to ameliorate punishment, but not to avoid assembling the facts and reaching a verdict.
One of the most well-established facts about men in combat is that they fight first and foremost for their buddies. The guys in their squad or platoon. There is a formal Code of Conduct in the US military, but there is a timeless code that binds soldiers: I will die for you because I know you will die for me.
People died for Bowe Bergdahl. That is incontrovertible fact. What remains unclear is whether they died because he violated the trust, the code, that should have bound him to his comrades.
The facts of his disappearance support that. But so too does the fact that it appears that Bergdahl didn’t have any buddies. He expressed scorn for his comrades, and was always an outsider who was independent, and likely to be reading when those in his unit were partying together. He was a man apart, at first figuratively, and then it seems quite literally.
If you want to be individualist, and follow your own lights and desires, that’s fine. But the military isn’t the place for that: go be an individualist somewhere else, and believe me, you’ll be much happier. And once you commit to the military, at times lives depend on you, and you have to put your wants aside, and choke down any disillusionment (a common excuse made for Bergdahl) and do your duty. Do it for your comrades, who may be disillusioned or lonely or unhappy or miserable or pissed off too: in fact, in combat generally, and Afghanistan particularly, it’s pretty much a lock that they all would rather be someplace else.
It’s cliche but it’s true: you surrender much of your individuality when you put on a uniform. The surrender is consensual in a volunteer military.
Much that we have been told implies that Bergdahl did not do that. He indulged himself, with no regard for the consequences his actions would have for those he left behind. (Bergdahl has more than a little in common with Snowden, by the way.)
Finding the facts and holding Bergdahl accountable for his actions is important for the good of the service, and for the memories of those who died trying to find him. But I fear that petty political considerations will trump such serious concerns. Trading hardcore Taliban for a GI is controversial enough. Trading hardcore Taliban for a deserter who cost the lives of good soldiers who sucked it up and endured the hardship that Bowe Bergdahl apparently felt he did not deserve is infinitely more so. Which means that the truth, and even the effort to find the truth, is likely to be the last casualty of this sorry affair because the truth could be extremely inconvenient for Barack Obama. If Susan Rice’s encore performance is anything to go by, the whitewash is well underway.