A Matter of Honor: Why So Many Soldiers Are Angry at the Bergdahl Deal

I’ve spent the last two weeks on vacation — the first real family vacation since shortly after I returned home from Iraq in 2008 — and I tried as much as I could to truly “unplug.” When the Bergdahl deal was announced, however, I failed utterly. The story infuriated me. Other writers at NRO have articulated the various flaws in the deal, including that the manner of the prisoner exchange broke the law and that providing such a steep ransom (high-level Taliban commanders) even further incentivizes American hostage-taking. But I want to focus on something else: a matter of honor.

Let’s begin with the New York Times’ account of his disappearance:

Sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life. He slipped off the remote military outpost in Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan and took with him a soft backpack, water, knives, a notebook and writing materials, but left behind his body armor and weapons — startling, given the hostile environment around his outpost.

No, not just startling. Criminal. Desertion is a crime. Even worse it’s a crime that — in the context of a modern deployment — requires rather considerable malice aforethought.

Many civilians don’t realize this, but every sentient deployed soldier — especially those deployed with combat units — knew that the disappearance of an American soldier was a matter of the highest priority. Specific code words would rocket up the chain of command the instant a soldier was unaccounted for, and all available units would immediately initiate a search — a search that the missing soldier would know would be extremely dangerous and would by necessity require a massive American presence on roads and in communities that were “uncleared” or known to be littered with IEDs and full of insurgents.

In other words, Bergdahl knew that men would risk life and limb to find him and knew that men would likely die.

Yet the available evidence indicates he walked off anyway.

And of course, the predictable happened. The military initiated a massive search, and men died. American heroes died. Have their parents had a presidential photo-op like Sergeant Bergdahl’s parents enjoyed? In the moral calculus have we even considered or mentioned the Americans who may have died in the combat operations that led to the capture of the Taliban leadership?

To defend this dishonor, the White House’s quick-reaction blogging allies are demonstrating their ignorance. Here’s Salon:

Less understood is that when a member of the military fails to adhere to the far-right’s rigid formula of what a soldier should be (nationalistic, religious, obedient; conservative) right-wingers like Palin come down on them like a ton of bricks.

This is utter nonsense. The question isn’t whether Bergdahl adhered to a “formula” but instead whether he committed a crime under the Uniform Code of Military justice, a crime so severe that it was punished by death as recently as 1945.

ThinkProgress flails perhaps even worse, demonstrating willful ignorance of the law of armed conflict by claiming that the Taliban prisoners will have to be released soon anyway:

When wars end, prisoners taken custody must be released. These five Guantanamo detainees were almost all members of the Taliban, according to the biographies of the five detainees that the Afghan Analysts Network compiled in 2012. None were facing charges in either military or civilian courts for their actions. It remains an open question whether the end of U.S. involvement in the armed conflict in Afghanistan requires that all Guantanamo detainees must be released. But there is no doubt that Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan must be released because the armed conflict against the Taliban will be over.

Let’s state this as plainly as possible: While we may attempt to end our combat operations against the Taliban, the Taliban have made no claim of ending their hostilities against us. We will be under zero obligation to hand over soldiers to an entity in an ongoing belligerent status against the United States.

Finally, a writer who should know better, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman, actually tries to claim that in his prisoner exchange, President Obama stands in the shoes of Presidents Washington, Madison, and Lincoln (and that Washington, Madison, and Lincoln would endorse President Obama’s actions). After all, he notes, Washington and Madison swapped prisoners with the British and Lincoln did with the Confederacy (prisoner exchanges were not unusual in 18th and 19th century warfare). Prisoner exchanges amongst armed forces conducting warfare under the accepted legal rules in force more than 150 years ago are meager precedent for providing ransom to a terrorist entity that has never complied with the laws of war.

But if Lieutenant Colonel Bateman wants to follow Washington and Lincoln’s precedents, is he willing to go all the way? After all Washington sometimes hanged deserters, and dozens of Union soldiers were executed for the same crime during the Civil War.

To be clear, by discussing the possibility of deserting, I am not claiming that Sergeant Bergdahl is a traitor. I have not seen evidence that he is. After all, Union soldiers who deserted didn’t join the Confederate Army any more than American soldiers who deserted in World War II joined the Wermacht. They are separate offenses.

But merely reciting the mantra that we leave no man behind does not justify this deal. There is a difference between a desertion and “Blackhawk Down.” There’s a difference between desertion and a soldier’s confusion and mistake. The military has a long and proud history of enduring great sacrifices to retrieve pilots behind enemy lines and wounded and even dead comrades in the midst of the most intense firefights. In the conduct of those rescue missions, we are doing our best to defeat the enemies who’ve captured, wounded, or killed our comrades. But we — rightly — do not have a tradition of breaking our own laws and empowering the enemy to bring deserters home and then celebrating their return at the White House.

I hope and pray those are not the facts. I hope and pray that we did not choose to strengthen the Taliban so that our president could try to clumsily end a war on his political timetable. But I fear that’s exactly what happened.

Read more on the Patheos Faith and Family Channel and follow David on Twitter.

Also read: The Difference Between Rescue and Ransom

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  • JT

    The problem I have with this is that the US government states that his life was in imamate danger and that is why the trade was done. That is the only problem I see. I see lots of posting about him being a traitor and I also wonder; but he is a US citi9zen who was captured by the enemy so as a citizen I would think he should have some rights. As A Canadian I did not agree with the lack of help for the young Canadian held at Guantomino.
    I wonder if the soldier should not have been sent home as I would think that people must have known he was ‘becoming disillusions with the war.

  • Nick

    Just one question.

    Can Bergdahl be accused of desertion?

    A soldier is considered AWOL when he leaves camp without permission. Then, after 30 days of absence he is considered a deserter. The soldier must then prove that he had no intention of deserting in order to get out of the charge.

    So my question, can we fairly call Bergdahl a deserter when he was captured after 9 hours and therefore had no chance to change his mind and return within the 30 days and therefore never become known as a deserter?

  • Richard Wolfe
  • aemish

    Excellent point. And we shouldn’t be over there in the first place.

  • The headline should be “Why so many whiners?” And what objective measurement determined that there are “so many” anyway? In the USA we have something called innocent until proven guilty and it applies to military justice too. The deal was a good one and honors our soldiers, one and all. Those five prisoners were worthless for any other purpose and would have to be freed as soon as the Afghanistan war was ended.

  • Kactuz

    The problem is less a matter of trade or the conduct of Bergdahl, than the problem of setting free five men that will do everything in their power to attack and kill others. They are hardened criminals motivated by Islamic texts and theory. It is certain that they will be involved in planning and execution of operations to terrorize non-Muslims (and other Muslims). They are already considered heroes, great examples of a tremendous jihadi victory against the weak infidels. Will President Obama take responsibility for the pain, suffering and deaths these that very well result from freeing these men? I doubt it. He is blind to anything but his own ego and to his understanding of American (and Western civilization) as the cause of all the world’s ills. No, he is not a a Muslim, but certainly he is a sympathizer who who understands little of history and nothing of Islamic theology. I think the proper word for this is ‘fool’. And we will pay for this in blood…

  • Guest

    A complicated situation no doubt, but I can’t help feeling that if the deal had not been made and it came out that the opportunity had been lost the prevailing media narrative would be “Obama abandons American POW…”

  • Maine_Skeptic

    As much as I can understand soldiers questioning Bergdahl’s honor, he hasn’t been convicted yet. It’s a false dichotomy that he can’t be brought home BEFORE we court-martial him, and it poisons civil discourse when Evangelicals and the GOP spend all their time looking for reasons to be outraged.

  • Zinc

    No man left behind. Whether he is eventually convicted or not is irrelevant right now, all that matters is that we don’t leave soldiers in the hands of the enemy.

    We are a nation of laws, not a bunch of savages. We brought him back so he can face our legal system, it would have been wrong to leave him there.

  • cleos_mom

    “He slipped off the remote military outpost in Paktika Province on the
    border with Pakistan and took with him a soft backpack, water, knives, a
    notebook and writing materials, but left behind his body armor and
    weapons — startling, given the hostile environment around his outpost.”

    Which should tell anyone with a even a few firing brain cells (which, alas, leaves out many self-described “patriots”) that whatever this guy intended he was either foolhardy or naive. But that matters not, like much of the right-wing spin industry, Mr. French has already convicted him.

    What the writer of this piece also conveniently ignores (not that he’s “claiming that Sergeant Bergdahl is a traitor”, mind you) is that all this has been known a long time; it’s only recently that the right-wing spin machine — aided, as usual, by “God’s people” — is wringing its collective hands and pronouncing itself as distraight and distrait.

    Dollars to donuts Mr. French is “praying” the spin ends in Bergdahl being a sacrificial goat to Obama Derangement Syndrome.

  • cleos_mom

    That’s technical stuff. Doesn’t play well on talk radio or from pull-pits.

  • cleos_mom

    You can bet your assets on that!

  • Yonah

    Let me pile on.

    First, Mr. French cites “available evidence”. Uh, yeah…is there a lot of that right now?

    So, tonight CNN reports that villagers that first encountered Bergdahl after he walked off base thought he was high. Shock, there.

    So, if more evidence becomes available that Berdahl had pre-existent psychological distress issues exacerbated by drug abuse, well, one might wonder if Mr. French wants to brand all the other Americans who fail in their responsibilities due to the same deficiencies as criminals…yeah….like the “war on drugs”.

  • captcrisis

    “Why so many soldiers are angry”

    Nothing in your post supports this headline. You cite the brave keyboard warriors at NRO but the only actual soldier you cite is one who supports the deal and compares Obama to some great Presidents.

  • Grotoff

    Wow. I suppose I knew all that right wing “support the troops” was just nationalist bullshit and you people really don’t care one shit for them, but this just lays it bare. Reprehensible.

  • BT

    It’s a bit early for all the handwringing and consternation. They will investigate. Facts will become known. He will be HERE and can have the chance to defend himself.

    Why get one’s unders in a knot so soon? Maybe he’s a deserter. Maybe he’s not. At least he’s back home so folks can find out. Better than letting him rot over there without a trial or investigation.

  • Svein Magnussen

    First of all, why all this condemnation of this young man… Once he’s a hero, the next moment the same people will send him to hell, and that is before we know the facts? It reminds me of the story of some men who went behind the lines pretending things (WWII). After the war it was known that the men was far from nazis, he was sent…Still people don’t belive that he was risking his life for his country…the seed of evil thought followed the man to his grave. ..So don’t judge …Still..Bergdahl not the first disillutioned solider who saw the many lies of war…