Last week the U.S. Army charged Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If he’s convicted of the former charge he could be sent to prison for five years; the latter carries a penalty of as much as life imprisonment. Leniency is called for; either of these results would be cruel punishment, but not, unfortunately, unusual.
Bergdahl is the American soldier who spent five years in the custody of the Taliban before repatriation last summer in exchange for five Guantanamo prisoners. President Obama took considerable – and very predictable – heat from the right for this negotiation, but my view at the time was that the exchange was justified by the critical obligation that we owe to soldiers – like Bergdahl – who volunteer to suffer danger and privation on our behalf.
The circumstances of Bergdahl’s captivity have not been clearly established. But whatever his behavior, few of us appreciate sufficiently the isolation and turmoil that the military represents for young men and women, many of whom are away from home, family and friends for the first time.
Last summer I referenced relevant anecdotes from my four years in the Navy in the early 1970s. Less than two weeks into boot camp, one fellow sailor suffered a very public panic attack in a crowded, noisy mess hall and had to be subdued and hustled away, never to be seen again. In radio school, a sailor jumped from the third floor into the courtyard below. At a remote outpost in Australia, a sailor climbed the water tower and refused to come down.
Later, a shipmate deserted our ship in a foreign port. And one day another sailor emerged from the ship’s engine spaces, arranged his shoes carefully on the deck, and stepped off into the South China Sea.
All of this, and considerably more, happened in the last years of the Vietnam War, but none of it involved real combat like Bergdahl faced.
In fact, some evidence indicates that Bergdahl may have been less prepared to deal with the stresses of the military and combat than other young soldiers. Last week the editorial board of The New York Times argued that Bergdahl should not be prosecuted, at all, pointing out that he had already shown evidence of psychological problems when the Army, struggling to attract recruits, granted him an eligibility waiver in 2008.
Of course, the military has an interest in prosecuting soldiers who fail to do their duty. But, despite his psychological shortcomings, Bergdahl volunteered to serve his country. Sentencing him to life in prison seems heartless and unjust, while the real malefactors of our misguided course in Afghanistan and our blunder into Iraq – George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld – continue to live with impunity.
But we have a history of punishing the vulnerable minor players in our national scandals and missteps while letting the wealthy, powerful and well-connected off easy.
We could probably think of a dozen examples. For committing what he thought was whistleblowing rather than espionage, troubled Pfc. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. For making highly classified material available to his mistress, Gen. David Petraeus was allowed to cop a plea and was sentenced to two years’ probation, during which he enjoys a lucrative post-military career.
Or consider the many corporals and privates who were held to account for failing to do their duty during another of our nation’s misguided military adventures, the Vietnam War. Thousands are still suffering from Vietnam, while as recently as March 23 the great architect and perpetrator of that war, Henry Kissinger, was playing the role of wise, senior statesman, eulogizing in the Washington Post his great friend, Lee Kuan Yew, the autocratic prime minister of Singapore.
So Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl represents an easy, customary target for the military. He’s quirky and offbeat, unlikely from the beginning to fit comfortably into the military mold. But showing him some compassion is less likely to undermine military discipline than is our traditional unwillingness to hold the powerful to account for their misdeeds.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.