The White House is absolutely right to ask the Army not to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion, as it reportedly has. Its motives are wrong — the administration clearly doesn't want to look like it gave away five top Taliban leaders for a criminal — but the end result is the same. Bergdahl has suffered enough. Let him go, and let him go honorably.
As it happens, I was also in Afghanistan with the Army. I understand there's an honor component to this, that there's a martial tradition of American soldiers who suffer the hardships of war without abandoning their duty. But the Bergdahl story is not completely without honor. He tried to escape twice, which is a mark of honorable behavior in captivity. And he's not escaping from eastern Germany and Stalag Luft III, but from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, where even the Islamabad government fears to go. He didn't join the Haqqani Network or collaborate in attacks against the U.S., like John Walker Lindt did with al Qaeda. Instead, he seems to have behaved honorably.
Like any criminal penalty, the punishment for desertion serves a few functions. It's a deterrent, meant to prevent others from committing the crime. Let us agree that this function has been served. Bergdahl spent five years as a prisoner of one of the most savage and ruthless terrorist groups on the planet. Even if he is not punished administratively for desertion, nobody thinks he won out of that deal.
Beyond deterrence, the other functions of punishment have no place here. Bergdahl will not remain in the Army, so his rehabilitation and incapacitation are meaningless. He can't desert again. And retribution — retribution falls into the same category as deterrence. In the last six years, he has surely suffered more than we can possibly imagine, and looks shattered. I suspect he'll never really recover.
Precedent is also not an issue. Military commanders who convene an Article 32 hearing have wide latitude to recommend disposition of the case, and do not at all have to be tied down by what happened before. Case law is one element they have to consider, but so are things like the desire to be rid of the case, good order in the military and the external circumstances. Because it's so unique, the Bergdahl case has literally no parallels in the 9/11 wars.
And even if it did, it wouldn't really matter. Commanders have wide discretion in these issues; that's the core of the complaint Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has against the military's adjudication of sexual assault cases, that too many are swept under the rug. By rights, she and her supporters should be the most vocal in calling for Bergdahl to be imprisoned. After all, if commanders are supposed to adhere more stringently to the letter of the law, and not abuse their discretion, it's only right that the sergeant go to jail. They're not — and I'm glad they're not — but it would be logical.
In the end, though, the Bergdahl affair is not really about honor or the deductive logic of legalisms. It's about what Graham Greene called the human factor, the thousand and one quirks and indignities of man as homo militaris. Fed up and wigged out, he wandered off base in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, one of the most alien and hostile parts of an alien and hostile country.
Without question, the United States lost by his treason. It gave up five high-ranking Taliban detainees who had been in prison for a decade, and would almost certainly return to the fight. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was quite right not to certify that they were safe. They weren't, and their release was a propaganda win for the enemy. But — but — that price has already been paid. They're gone. There's nothing left in this case but a sad, wrecked young man. Bergdahl and his parents are shattered Americans from Idaho. Let them go.
It is said that the wheels of military justice grind slowly, but very fine. The folder with Bergdahl's case is being passed from office to office in the Pentagon, stamped and re-stamped by that vast camouflage army that constitutes government for people like the Bergdahls. It has no feelings, officially. Every person signing off on his case doesn't know him and few have met him. There is no reward for leniency; there is no reward for considering the human factor. The safe thing to do is convict him and throw him in the can, or at least strip him of his benefits and make him unable to work with a dishonorable discharge. But there's no point to it. Let him go.
Peek was a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. His views are his own and do not represent any other person or organization. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek.