Bergdahl case should be decided on the facts, not politics

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I awoke earlier this week to the Bowe Bergdahl story.

From the day Army Sgt. Bergdahl disappeared after “wandering away” from his base in Afghanistan, my friends in uniform at the Pentagon told me that it was a case of desertion, pure and simple, and that Bergdahl seemed to be the poster boy for Soldier Most Likely to Desert. A close friend in Special Forces led the first search party, and hated having to do it, not a typical reaction. Another friend was killed in the search. After a few years, when the subject came up, an intelligence officer asked me why I thought that an American soldier who provided no propaganda value (quotes or clips reviling the United States) was being kept alive. Even when the swap was made, he asked why the Taliban would have waited so long. Obviously, Bergdahl wasn’t in that big a hurry to get home.

{mosads}Then, all of a sudden, the swap of five high-level Taliban at Guantanamo for Bergdahl assumed major propaganda value for the administration, and killed two birds with one stone. The president gets people out of Guantánamo, and gets back “an American left behind” for five years that our own troops couldn’t recover. How heroic, except for the fact that no one in the armed forces saw it that way. To them, the president arranged the return of a deserter and released men who could be responsible for the later deaths of many Americans.

Complicating matters, the administration’s pronouncement that we never leave anyone behind is nonsense, and the kind of statement one would expect from a national security team generally devoid of veterans. The statement has always referred to the dead and wounded that were on the same battlefield as other troops. When it comes to troops captured in action, they are frequently left behind because there is no choice tactically or operationally, and those troops are freed at the time of either victory or a formal prisoner exchange. Of course, operations have been launched to free prisoners, but the provision necessary for such an operation is a reasonable chance of success.

Then politics rears its ugly head. The president has been seen hugging Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden of the White House, and crowing about the rescue of an American soldier. Obviously, the story reads a little differently when one substitutes the word “deserter” for “soldier.” With the administration having committed itself in the most obvious possible way, Bergdahl must continue to carry the mantle of “soldier.” Political supporters rally to the president. His enemies cite the failure to consult Congress on the prisoner swap.

Lost was the simple issue of right and wrong. Bergdahl left his post without evening bothering to take a weapon. Obviously, he wasn’t planning on shooting anyone. But presidential politics overarch the issue, so a preliminary Army hearing recommends that Bergdahl serve no jail time. After all, he’s not such a bad guy, and the Army certainly isn’t about to embarrass its commander in chief, who has a major say in the allocation of Army money. The recommendation on Bergdahl is, of course, backed by the White House, and by bleeding hearts who feel that five years with the Taliban was punishment enough, not bothering to reckon into the equation how he ended up there in the first place, or what those five years were like. Republicans add to the mess by making the case look like partisan politics.

The fly in the ointment: Gen. Robert B. Abrams, head of Army Forces Command, Fort Bragg, N.C., who has decided that Bergdahl should be tried for desertion. Bergdahl’s lawyer immediately pointed out that the general had gone against the recommendation of the first hearing on the case.

The discussion about the case itself need go no further. Whether or not Bergdahl is guilty matters little to anyone except Bergdahl himself, some members of the Armed Forces and possibly Bergdahl’s family. Hopefully, it will be decided on its merits. More important is what the case says about how politics taint every aspect of our lives, even when issues are straightforward. Had Bergdahl been found by our troops, a decision on his court-martial would have been made in days or weeks, not a year and a half. His disposition would depend on the facts, not his time spent with his captors or presidential hugs.

Will Bergdahl really be court-martialed? Who knows? But if he is, his fate should be determined by the facts, not by The New York Times and its readers, nor by Republicans in Congress, nor anything else but the truth. Let’s hope that the right solution is reached, regardless of whom it embarrasses.

Blady, M.D., is a former program officer for the under secretary of Defense for policy and senior analyst for the under secretary of Defense for intelligence.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan War Army Bowe Bergdahl desertion Taliban
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