Don’t forgive Bowe Bergdahl, just forget about him. He’s just not worth our time.
Last week, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s defense lawyer reported that a U.S. Army hearing recommended the Army sergeant be spared prison.
By Ryan Blum
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
Last week, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s defense lawyer reported that a U.S. Army hearing recommended the Army sergeant be spared prison. Bergdahl, an infantryman charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, allegedly walked away from his base in Eastern Afghanistan only to be captured by the Taliban and held for five years in captivity.
The proposal, which has not been confirmed by the military, sparked outrage amongst veterans on social media. “He should be executed,” one former Soldier wrote to me on Facebook. “This is why there’s vigilante justice!”
I, like most Americans, learned of Bowe Bergdahl in 2014 when he was released in a controversial prisoner exchange for five high-level Taliban members. I initially welcomed the news that an American POW had been returned home. Two days after however, a daily beast article written by a soldier from Bergdahl’s battalion stated that Bergdahl was a “deserter” and that six to eight soldiers were killed in the search that followed.
As a former infantry squad leader who served in Iraq and Afghanistan I couldn’t imagine any scenario where someone would simply “walk off.” I thought: “Either Bowe Bergdahl is insane, or a traitor.”
With more condemnation from his former platoon mates, the media and political narrative quickly became that every death in Paktika province that year was a direct result of Bergdahl’s desertion and the administration swapped five terrorists for a deserter. John McCain, a five year POW himself, has even threatened a congressional hearing if “it comes out that he has no punishment.”
An interesting dichotomy has been the level of outrage between the civilians and the veteran community. Many of the former have called for restraint stating that five years in Taliban captivity is punishment enough, many of the latter call for life imprisonment or blood.
To understand this difference of opinion civilians have to understand the dynamic of an infantry platoon. The platoon resembles a family more than anything else. A family that, quite literally, lives and dies based on the actions and performances of its individual members. You may dislike or even hate members of your family but you never abandon them, above all in combat.
The infantry does not view words like “honor” and “duty” as anachronistic nor quixotic but intrinsic values that make up the very constitution of our profession.
One stanza in the Infantryman’s creed reads: “I forsake not my country, my mission, my comrades, my sacred duty.”
Bergdahl committed the ultimate soldier’s betrayal, forsaking all four tenets. To many in his platoon, and many in the veteran community, his actions are unforgivable.
Admittedly, like my comrades, I was initially out for Bergdahl’s skin. I imagined how I would feel if any of my men were killed searching for a soldier who, by his own volition, endangered his comrades. Since the beginning of this ordeal defense officials said it was “unlikely” that he would ever face any punishment. I thought, “He’s going to get away with this.”
Eventually though I questioned myself as to why I was wasting my energy on somebody named Bowe Bergdahl. He doesn’t deserve my anger. He’s not worth it. When it came to light just how much torture Bergdahl endured—including beatings, starvation, and severe diarrhea that was left untreated — it was impossible to not feel sympathy.
The only reason to inspire so much hate would be if he was, in fact, directly responsible for the deaths of US soldiers. Despite the media narrative, however, Army reports increasingly showed that it would be too much of an assumption to link these deaths to Bergdahl’s desertion alone. Paktika, in particular, was a violent province long before Bergdahl walked off. Patrols were going to be conducted regardless; lives were inevitably going to be lost. This was war. Ultimately, Bergdahl didn’t kill anyone—the Taliban did.
Now, following last week’s proposal, it’s even more improbable that Bergdahl will do any time in prison. So, I ask my fellow veterans if you cannot forgive, then forget, because sadly, you will find no satisfaction. He may not even feel any guilt over his actions — although I’m quite certain he regrets them. Even if we drug him in front of a firing squad or locked him up and threw away the key it wouldn’t bring any soldiers back.
Bergdahl forsook his comrades. We did not forsake him. We truly upheld the warrior ethos to ‘never leave a fallen comrade.’ For the rest of his life he has to deal with the mental trauma that he suffered from his captivity and the scorn of his platoon. A punishment far worse than any court imposed verdict.
Ryan Blum was a squad leader with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He now studies International Affairs at the American University of Paris. He recently was selected to be co-holder of the Army chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. You can follow him on twitter @ryanblum1.
Photo credit: U.S. Army via Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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