The emerging picture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was exchanged for five prisoners held at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo, indicates he’s no hero, no all-American G.I. Joe, and might even be a deserter.
But what no one disputes is that he was an American soldier held by the enemy, and that alone justifies the U.S. effort to bring him home.
That is what the armed forces do. It’s part of unwritten but fundamental code of solidarity in the uniformed services. No one is left behind, and no one should seek, or offer, apologies for bringing soldiers home.
The circumstances of this particular case make the prisoner exchange contentious. The initial sense of relief and joy over his return quickly vanished when it was disclosed that PFC Bergdahl — he was promoted to sergeant during his five-year absence, as per military protocol — apparently walked away from his post in Afghanistan voluntarily.
That is a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if it turns out to be true.
Article 85 defines desertion, in part, as anytime a member of the armed forces “quits his unit, organization or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.” But the statute also requires intent “to remain away therefrom permanently.” Without such intent, it might still qualify as “absence without leave,” also a military violation.
Before rushing to judgment, however, the murky details of the Bergdahl incident must be investigated. Did he intend to stay away? What was his state of mind? The prolonged Afghan war, like the war in Iraq, has been fought under conditions that created mental confusion among many of the returning troops. Soldiers still in the field have displayed the sorts of symptoms that caused others to seek mental-health counseling once they were back home. Was this the case with Sgt. Bergdahl?
Already, several early claims, such as the allegation that he went in search of the Taliban forces that turned into his captors, have been debunked or questioned.
It was also said that the five Taliban adherents for whom he was exchanged were among the most dangerous detainees held at Gitmo. Subsequent reporting in The Los Angeles Times, among others, suggests this, too, is hype. The newspaper said three of the five were civilians rather than hard-core militants and one was a mid-level police official. The fifth, Mohammed Fazl, was accused of commanding forces that massacred hundreds of civilians — a truly dangerous individual.
In failing to inform Congress about their release beforehand, the Obama administration ignored the law, an action the president’s advisers have sought to justify by claiming that the Taliban had threatened to kill Sgt. Bergdahl if it became public.
This, too, should be part of any post-exchange investigation, providing it doesn’t turn into a political circus. Republicans in Congress have been so eager to turn any perceived weakness or misstep by the administration into a scandal that it’s hard to take them seriously when they once again cry wolf.
Whatever an investigation turns up, it does not alter the basic facts of Bergdahl’s detention, nor the fact that bringing a captured soldier back to his family was the correct decision.
Could President Obama have handled it better, perhaps without the big Rose Garden announcement? Yes.
Did he make the right call? Absolutely.