That Bowe Bergdahl is guilty of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy I have no doubt. I wholeheartedly believe that Bergdahl “quit his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service” and, as such, committed the offence of desertion. I wholeheartedly believe that Bergdahl “intended to avoid actual or impending combat with the enemy by running away” and, as such, committed the offence of misbehavior before the enemy. These claims will not be disputed here.
In the absence of any charges of treason, we are obliged to believe convincing evidence that Bergdahl committed treason is a belief not warranted.
Bergdahl ought to be seen as merely deserting and as merely misbehaving before the enemy. These are two crimes that are routinely punished with less than a five year sentence in an American military prison, a reduction in rank, and a dishonorable discharge. Bergdahl spent five of the past six years living as a Taliban captive, andlet me emphasize that: he was captured by the Taliban.Without evidence of treason, we have no evidence that Bergdahl was aiding his captors—aside from surrendering the same type of information that John McCain surrendered to his captors and that Michael Durant surrendered to his.
So long as we view the Taliban as an organization that ruthlessly hates and despises America and, especially, American soldiers, we are more warranted in believing that Bergdahl’s captivity was grievously heinous, exponentially moreso than his captivity in the disciplinary barracks at Leavenworth would have been.
In short, Bergdahl has already paid his price.
Moral justifications for punishment routinely are based in either retribution, correction, or deterrence. That Bergdahl has already paid his price means that greater retributive punishment is excessive and unjust. Now, we are left with corrective and deterrent justifications for more punishment.
No soldier in his or her right mind is going to be more deterred by any punishment handed down to Bergdahl than by the possibility of Taliban captivity. That’s why any punishment handed down on the grounds of deterrence is excessive and unjust. So we are left solely with the possibility of corrective punishment.
Any reasonable person who takes into account the horrors of Taliban captivity ought to conclude that Bergdahl learned has already his lesson. Were he to be back in his outpost, knowing what he knows now, Bergdahl would have stayed put. That seems obvious.
One might argue that he would have stayed put, but would have harbored just as much anti-American sentiment, and that is what must be corrected. But there are big problems with this..
In America, even in the military, one has the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. One can hate America and, yet, America has no right to punish and correct such an attitude. And the process Bergdahl is now being dragged through is not one that will lead to him change his views on America or its military. In fact, if the government is pushing for punishment that is corrective, this process is self-defeating.
In other words,any punishment Bergdahl faces is unjust. And, if that’s so, then we ought not drag Bergdahl through a process that, in itself, will further damage the Bowe Bergdahl who needs assistance, medically, psychologically, and socially re-integrating into American life.
The process and the charges leveled against Bergdahl are unjust and, by even charging Bergdahl, the United States, as an institution, is committing an injustice.
The first rebuttal to that very damning claim is always the following: Bergdahl is responsible for the deaths of eight American soldiers. Without getting into the complexities and circumstances surrounding these deaths and the incredibly problematic claim that these soldiers would not have died had Bergdahl not deserted, I will merely grant, for the sake of argument, that Bergdahl is, in some form, causally responsible for these deaths.
However, if Bergdahl is causally responsible for these deaths, then the price he must pay is equal to the cost of those deaths—or so this argument is supposed to go. This claim is simply not true. Causal responsibility does not necessary entail moral responsibility—or, more succinctly, culpability. That Bergdahl is causally responsible for these deaths is not enough to demonstrate that he is culpable. To make the stronger claim—the culpability claim—much more is needed. And, to argue for greater retribution, one must rely on that stronger one.
In order to demonstrate that Bergdahl was culpable for these deaths, one must either show that Bergdahl intended these deaths or that these deaths were the result of his negligence. No evidence can be offered for the claim that Bergdahl intended those deaths. The question of negligence, however, is more complicated and nuanced. Negligence, both according to morality and according to the law, entails that as a reasonable person, one foresees the great risks, and proceeds where other reasonable persons would not. This is the ‘reasonable person’ standard. This account entails that we hold persons who are not reasonable to a standard of which they cannot help but fall short. But the only way in which one is able to live up to the ‘reasonable person’ standard is to be a reasonable person. If not, the standard cannot apply; and, if the standard cannot apply, then we cannot justly accuse one of negligence.
Bergdahl’s lack of the ability to reason, at the time of his decision and action is evident. He walked out of his outpost into Taliban-occupied territory in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan without his weapon, without his equipment, and without his squad, section, platoon, or company. Bergdahl was either suicidal or he genuinely believed he could walk, unscathed, through Afghanistan, through Pakistan, and into India. Both strongly suggest that Bergdahl was not a reasonable person.
Thus, we have eight deaths. I can grant that Bergdahl is causally responsible for these deaths. Yet the argument cannot be made that Bergdahl is culpable for any of them. And, if that is the case, then Bergdahl should not be subjected to any greater punishment. The United States, as an institution, is committing an injustice.
Other infantry officers with whom I have served have conceded the validity of the argument that Bergdahl is not culpable. They still argue that it was right to charge him. They assert that is right that he be further punished,. One even bluntly asserted that he should have been left to rot in Taliban captivity for the rest of his life.
In the aftermath of Bergdahl’s recovery, the President of the United States grandly spoke on the White House lawn, accompanied by Bowe’s parents. Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor, asserted that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction”. I claim that it is these actions and words that have ruffled the feathers of the service members, and blinded them in their pursuit of justice.
The American military is a rare breed. ‘Honor’ is still a concept that is widely spoken of and revered as sacred in the military. Service members quite literally wear badges of honor on their chests and on their sleeves. “Duty, Honor, Country” is the motto that adorns the United States Military Academy, and many units within the Army still retain mottos that esteem “honor.” And, many desire to see Bergdahl dishonorably discharged.
But these notions of honor are indistinct from arrogance and hubris. If those that serve are the honorable, then those that do not are the non-honorable, or the dishonorable. Many of my fellow veterans frequently espouse their disgust at the honorary praise heaped upon recently deceased celebrities, while their comrades who are killed in action come home to little or no fanfare. That is, these veterans and soldiers do not see the celebrities as worthy of such honors and, as such, they see these celebrities as non-honorable, especially in comparison to the honorable and dutiful soldier.
In his Korean war epic This Kind of War, T.R. Fehrenbach echoes this. “Arrogance is the occupational disease of the soldier,” he writes.
Arrogant soldiers and arrogant veterans resent the praise that was heaped upon Bergdahl. After all, Bergdahl was neither loyal nor dutiful. He was a poor soldier who abandoned his post. He was a coward. To treat such a person as a hero, to have the National Security Advisor assert that he served with honor and even with distinction— which can only mean he served more honorably than most of the other soldiers—is a slap in the face to any soldier and any veteran who finds him or herself committed to and defined by these arrogant notions of honor.
This is the situation that these soldiers and veterans must rectify. And, to do so, Bergdahl must be shown to be dishonorable—and, he must be dishonored. For he has been honored—and honored at the highest level—by none other than the Commander-in-Chief.
To accomplish this feat, Bergdahl, to them, must suffer. The rectification for the imaginary suffering of the arrogant soldier and arrogant veteran is the actual suffering of Bergdahl. This is hubris at its very worst. This is malice, par excellence.
Ironically, the only reason Bergdahl was ever in the situation he found himself in—in that terrifying outpost in the middle of Afghanistan—was because of the institutional hubris of the military that led to the catastrophic and catastrophically long wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This institutional hubris not only blinded the strategic decision-makers in these wars, but it blinded the policy makers. The United States military was, after all, the best, the most honorable, the most capable, and the proudest military ever assembled. There was no task too big and there was no task outside the domain of this institution. This institution could be built both to fight in the Fulda Gap against the Soviet war machine and establish governments in developing countries, rife with social and ethnic strife—problems that no one in the institution was competent enough to understand.
Without the ability to understand circumstance, one cannot effectively change anything, no matter how fervently they pride in their abilities, and not without reliance on fortune. But fortune is a bitch It would be wise not to rely upon it. We must understand circumstance first. After all, if this institution cannot even understand the hardship and suffering that Bergdahl, its lost own, endured—and through that understanding see what is called for is compassion and mercy—then how is this institution to understand the hardship and the suffering of those of whom it seeks to win the hearts and minds?
The charges levied against Bergdahl clearly show, that this institution is committed to bringing about an injustice. And reflection upon the motives driving this injustice reveals much deeper systemic problems—ones that will ultimately reduce our military to shambles.