I served a full career in the military. I have been deployed to war zones. I have served in the Pentagon. I have lost friends to this “Global War on Terror.” So yeah, I definitely have an opinion on this one.
As it happens, I never much approved of our policies post-9/11. I viewed the Afghanistan war as necessary but poorly prosecuted, and dragged out for far too long. I viewed the latest Iraq war as completely unnecessary and ultimately very damaging to our national security. I deeply resent every US dollar and every US life expended there, and I was not shy about saying so among my comrades. I was not alone in my opinions, either.
But being in an all-volunteer military isn’t license to decide what you will and won’t do. It isn’t license to quit, to walk away, to sabotage US operations, to ditch your buddies on the battlefield. You can express your misgivings privately to your friends and your boss, but never publicly. And when the order comes down… so long as it isn’t illegal… you have to put your opinions aside and all pull together for the success of the mission. You have taken binding oaths and signed binding agreements, and If you can’t or won’t abide by them, then we have a serious disciplinary issue. Lack of solidarity gets people killed in wartime.
That is what we have with Bowe Bergdahl. According to his comrades and to official records, Bergdahl is at best a deserter, and at worst a traitor who willfully walked away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009, leaving behind written evidence of his motivation: he was ashamed of his country and did not want to fight for America.
In terms of discipline, Bergdahl’s crime of desertion was pretty similar to PFC Bradley Manning’s crime of espionage: in both cases, we have Privates First Class who decided they didn’t like US policy or US actions, and unilaterally did something pretty dang illegal about it.
Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for releasing the largest cache of classified documents in US history. While that action put a lot of people at grave risk, there has been (as far as I know) no specific damage cited as a result.
Bergdahl’s desertion, on the other hand, has done immediate and quantifiable harm. Six good troops were reportedly killed in searches and attempts to recover him, and now we have released five Taliban commanders in a trade to get him home.
Should we have kept trying to bring home a deserter? Yes, I think that no matter how a soldier falls captive, we have an obligation to try to get him home again. But trading five top enemy leaders for one deserter was foolish and disproportionate, especially on top of the six soldiers’ lives that were already lost. And the mere fact that Bergdahl has had a rough go of it for the past five years does little, in my mind, to make up for the damage his actions have caused.
Manning is rightly serving a 35-year sentence*for his crimes. I think it only right that Bergdahl face a court-martial for his crimes, too.
* Manning will be eligible for parole after serving seven years.