WASHINGTON — It shouldn’t be that surprising that many U.S. service members are not exactly overjoyed by Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from captivity. Bergdahl slipped away from his platoon in 2009 after becoming disillusioned with the U.S. war effort, and accusations against him have ranged from desertion to treason.
After what he’s already been through, it seems unlikely that he will face charges for his actions, but any soldier who prompts a dangerous manhunt and the exchange of high-value Taliban prisoners after abandoning his unit isn’t going to be the most popular guy in the ranks.
But should he have been in the ranks in the first place? The case of Chelsea (then-Bradley) Manning, another soldier who caused the military a major headache after becoming disillusioned by the U.S. war effort, prompted much discussion about the military’s lowered recruitment and retention standards. It’s fairly obvious now that someone with Manning’s clear record of mental instability should never have been sent to Iraq in the first place, much less placed in charge of handling sensitive information.
In the years prior to Bergdahl’s enlistment in 2008, the Army continually lowered its recruitment standards to meet the needs of two simultaneous wars. This often meant allowing in more recruits who scored lower on aptitude tests, weren’t physically fit or had criminal records.
The number of "high-quality" recruits — those who have high school diplomas and score in the upper 50th percentile of aptitude tests — fell from 56.2 percent in 2005 to 44.6 percent in 2007, the year before Bergdahl enlisted. The cap on those scoring below the 30th percentile was raised. The percentage of recruits receiving "moral conduct" waivers increased to 11 percent. (With the war in Afghanistan winding down and planned cuts to ground forces, standards are now reportedly improving again.)
But there’s little evidence to suggest that Bergdahl needed any special help to get into the Army. Home-schooled by his parents, he had received a GED and was reportedly a voracious reader with an interest in foreign languages. After joining up, he prepared for deployments by learning how to speak Pashto and reading Russian military manuals.
He was a superb marksman from a young age, didn’t have a criminal record and initially believed strongly in the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. He was clearly a bit aimless in life at the time of his enlistment, but there’s nothing in accounts of his early life that indicates serious mental health issues.
The same may not be true of everyone in his unit. The late Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings’ 2012 profile of Bergdahl draws a direct connection between the Army’s low recruitment standards and the well-documented discipline problems of Bergdahl’s unit, which was, for a time, left without a commanding officer after its lieutenant was removed for fighting with a superior.
Hastings wrote that footage of the unit from shortly before Bergdahl’s disappearance shows "a bunch of soldiers who no longer give a (expletive): breaking even the most basic rules of combat, like wearing baseball caps on patrol instead of helmets."
Bergdahl clearly never fit in well with the group and was mocked by other soldiers for having an aloof attitude. Clearly something happened to transform someone genuinely excited about military life into someone who wrote that he felt like he was part of an "army of liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies" to his father a week before going AWOL.
You can debate whether the biggest problem was Bergdahl himself, the Army’s general discipline problems, or simply a war that went on for too long. But recruitment standards don’t seem to be the issue here. A smart, fit, idealistic kid from Idaho who already knows how to shoot a gun seems like someone the Army would sign up at any time.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.