Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: Hostage or Deserter? Either Way, He Finds Himself in a Situation from Which it Will Be Difficult to Extricate Him
By Ken K. Gourdin
Is Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, U.S. Army, an unfortunate hostage, or is he a deserter (albeit, perhaps, as a conscientious objector)? Some sources say Bergdahl wrote e-mails before his capture in which he expressed disillusionment over being sent to Afghanistan and about the soundness of the mission he had been ordered to help carry out. Agree or disagree, from one vantage point, at least, one can hardly blame Bergdahl – since his Commander-in-Chief apparently feels much the same way as he does about U.S. operations in Afghanistan (which is ironic, since Obama the candidate assured us that Afghanistan was the “good war” while Iraq was the “bad” one). One does wonder, however, how well thought out Bergdahl’s actions, which seemingly stemmed from his apparent discontent, were.
If the military were responsible for transporting me someplace I determined I did not want to be (or even if I got there by any other means), I would have to make sure I had a workable plan for getting out if I were going to desert (or simply to leave, if I weren’t in the military). Going over the hill in the middle of Nowhere, Anywhere Else is a little different that attempting to hitchhike out of the middle of unfamiliar Downtown, USA. It’s one thing to be disillusioned on the one hand, while being realistic and smart enough, on the other hand, to realize that (disillusionment notwithstanding) my power and prospects for effecting immediate change in my undesirable situation are limited.
Perhaps I’m in a situation similar to the one in which Sergeant Bergdahl found himself. Perhaps I’m in a country with which the U.S. has tenuous diplomatic relations, in which numerous groups with widely varying agendas are jockeying for dominant political position (probably by force), and in which political processes are neither stable nor well-developed, (not to mention the fact that I might be charged with going absent without leave – if not with desertion – if I abandon my post). If so, I need to be smart enough to realize that extricating myself from my undesirable circumstances likely won’t be as simple as finding the nearest city with an airport, presenting my passport, buying a ticket home, and boarding a plane. This is especially so in a situation such as this where, if I happen to be captured by the enemy, my foe isn’t likely to listen to any of my protestations that I don’t support my country’s decision to send me there or its reasons for doing so: common sense should tell me that there’s a better than average chance that any such protestations will fall on deaf ears.
On the other hand, few can dispute that American troops are, on the whole, smart, confident, capable, and well-trained. Nor can one dispute that, however bleak the circumstances in which a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine finds himself, it’s very likely that he is always looking for ways to turn the situation to his advantage. Perhaps, if indeed he wanted to desert, these are the qualities which Bergdahl believed would make his attempt successful, however long the odds were that he would succeed.
My support of the United States, of its policies, and of the use of its military might to effect those policies isn’t so strong that my attitude is, “My Country, Right or Wrong.” However, my support is pretty close to that level. One lesson the United States and its future leaders should have learned from the Vietnam conflict is that if leaders are going to commit troops, the number of those troops (and the amount of other resources committed) should be sufficient to accomplish the mission, and the mission, in turn, should be well defined. And, while many might think me naïve for holding this view, I believe that one of the lessons the American public should have learned from Vietnam is that the quickest way to end any military engagement, regardless of one’s personal feelings about it, is to support it. With the exception, perhaps, of the Tet Offensive, the U.S. never lost any military engagement in Vietnam. Rather, the Vietnam conflict was lost in the public and political arenas here in the U.S. long before the Communists and the Khmer Rouge overran Vietnam.
All of that having been said, while I disagree profoundly with the attempts of President Barack Obama and of his Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, to downsize the military to pre-World-War-II levels; while I disagree with their apparent conclusion that there is no reason to have a large military if one has little intention of using it; and while I disagree with President Obama’s conduct of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, Obama himself at least has been wise enough to avoid committing large numbers of troops and other resources to ill-defined missions. For me, the bottom line is, “Don’t pick any fights you don’t intend to do everything necessary to win.” I cannot speak for Sergeant Bergdahl, but perhaps any disillusionment he has about the conflict in which he was engaged is that those responsible for waging it are more concerned about politics and public perception than about winning. One may call President Bush’s incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan ill advised, and one may say that the missions in those places were ill defined, but I believe it is beyond dispute that he was concerned more with achieving objectives than with politics or perception. The conduct of his successor of the still-ongoing conflicts has illustrated that Obama, by contrast, apparently is more concerned with the latter.
If one is concerned most with the soundness of U.S. policy or with the wise use of military power to achieve that policy, one should pick up a pen, run for office, join a think tank, or join a university faculty. Conversely, once one joins the military, while he retains his First Amendment rights to a certain extent, his job is to go where the military sends him and to do what the military tells him to do. Even if one disagrees or becomes disillusioned about where he is told to go and what he is told to do, provided his orders do not violate widely-accepted norms for the conduct of military operations, he should honor his commitment, finish any pending assignments, and should honorably complete his enlistment before turning his attention to considering one of the aforementioned options for becoming involved in public life. If one wishes to be seen as a conscientious objector for refusing to go where he is sent or to carry out the mission he is given, he needs to be prepared to accept the consequences of that choice, however serious. However one may feel about Secretary of State John Kerry’s publicly-expressed attitudes toward his service in Vietnam after the fact, I do respect him for the fact that that course (rather than desertion, if indeed that’s what Bergdahl is guilty of, and if indeed he’s guilty of anything) is what Kerry chose.
In any case, Bergdahl likely has suffered more at the hands of the Taliban than he would have suffered after being convicted of the worst possible non-death-penalty violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and sent to a military prison.