Editorials

Bergdahl case doesn’t call for court-martial

From the editorial board

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, has been referred for trial by a general court-martial. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, has been referred for trial by a general court-martial. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File) AP/U.S. Army file

With America reeling from spasms of Islamist violence, including the slaughter of 14 people in San Bernadino, it's human nature that citizens would seek their pound of flesh.

They're flailing around to find someone to bring to justice or, failing that, someone on whom they can exact vengeance.

Into this charged atmosphere stumbles Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Army deserter who suddenly found himself facing a possible life sentence Monday when Gen. Robert B. Abrams called for a full court-martial.

Bergdahl got himself into this mess by walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and straight into five years of Taliban captivity.

The Idaho native deserted his post on a fool's errand as a would-be whistleblower. He placed his fellow soldiers in harm's way on a weeks-long manhunt for their missing comrade.

President Obama later agreed to swap five Taliban prisoners for his freedom. Now, in a sense, Bergdahl has become a proxy for these freed jihadists, and for the wrath Americans feel toward their ilk.

But that's not a good enough reason to court-martial him.

Bergdahl, 29, may have hurt his own cause by telling his story in the newly released audio podcast, "Serial." While he doesn't come off as a turncoat, the interviews do show a soldier with a plan that he carried out.

He was a confused, reckless young man who thought he could walk 20 miles through Taliban badlands to find a U.S. general who would listen to his grievances.

He was a delusional action-hero wannabe who saw himself as a cross between characters from the "Bourne Identity" movies and an Ayn Rand novel.

At a time like this – during a terrorist scare, and when his fate was being decided – he should've kept his mouth shut.

The same is true of Donald Trump. The Republican presidential frontrunner fired up a Las Vegas rally in October by calling Bergdahl "a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed. Thirty years ago he would have been shot."

Trump's red-meat demagoguery was wrong; his facts were wronger. Only one U.S. military deserter has been executed since the Civil War, and that happened during World War II.

If there's one voice worth listening to amid the sound and fury, it's Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, formerly of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Bergdahl was not stationed at JBLM, thank goodness. But the investigation of his actions was conducted at the South Sound base, and Dahl led the inquiry.

Dahl is hardly a left-wing apologist for AWOL soldiers. He served two tours in Afghanistan and commanded an artillery brigade in Iraq.

After two months investigating Bergdahl and interviewing 57 people, Dahl concluded the soldier should not receive prison time. Dahl found no evidence supporting rumors that Bergdahl planned to join the enemy, nor that U.S. service members were killed looking for him.

The general characterized him as "unrealistically idealistic" but also "truthful."

Dahl didn't reach his conclusions in a vacuum. He consulted a team of 22 JBLM officers, enlisted soldiers and doctors. We wish Gen. Abrams would have found Dahl's report persuasive.

Even if not court-martialed, Bergdahl still would face a bad-conduct discharge and up to a year in prison. He would have to live with the shame of deserting his unit, and the scars from five years of torture and solitary confinement in Afghanistan.

That seems like a pound of flesh, at least.

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