Does it Matter if Bowe Bergdahl Was a Deserter?

For the sake of Washington, this story is about Guantanamo, the power of the White House versus Congress, and the drawdown of the Afghanistan War.

National Journal
Brian Resnick Elahe Izadi
June 5, 2014, 4:16 a.m.

There is no short­age of people who will speak out against Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl, the only Amer­ic­an pris­on­er of the Afgh­anistan war, just re­leased from five years of cap­ture.

A year later, there’s still no con­sensus on the ques­tion: is Snowden a hero or a trait­or? Ex­pect a sim­il­ar path for Ber­g­dahl.

One is Justin Ger­leve, Ber­g­dahl’s former squad lead­er, who ap­peared on CNN on Wed­nes­day. “I be­lieve that he totally deser­ted — not only his fel­low sol­diers — but his lead­er­ship that wanted the best for him and for our coun­try,” Ger­leve said. He also im­plied that Ber­g­dahl’s cap­ture led to an in­crease in tar­geted at­tacks against their units. (There are dis­puted claims over wheth­er sev­er­al died as a dir­ect res­ult of Ber­g­dahl’s ac­tions.) “I can’t say for sure the leak­age was from Ber­g­dahl, but it’s kind of that sus­pi­cion that it did hap­pen,” Ger­leve con­tin­ued.

But when CNN’s Jake Tap­per asked him wheth­er Ber­g­dahl should have been res­cued, Ger­leve re­spon­ded. “My opin­ion is yes; no Amer­ic­an needs to be left be­hind.”

This ex­change seems to en­cap­su­late the me­dia cov­er­age of Bowe Ber­g­dahl — ques­tion­ing his char­ac­ter while ad­mit­ting, ul­ti­mately, that those de­tails don’t mat­ter much.

Broad swaths of Cap­it­ol Hill that agree. Even the law­makers who have ex­pressed the most ar­dent out­rage at the deal the White House cut to se­cure Ber­g­dahl’s re­lease, such as Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain, him­self a former POW, say it’s ir­rel­ev­ant wheth­er he was a desert­er or not.

“I don’t view that as hav­ing any im­pact on people who are on the top level of Taliban in­to Qatar, which has a Taliban of­fice,” Mc­Cain said. “And they are go­ing to be back in Afgh­anistan with­in a year, killing Amer­ic­ans, try­ing to kill Amer­ic­ans.”’

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5004) }}

The White House held a clas­si­fied brief­ing Wed­nes­day even­ing on the de­tails of the pris­on­er ex­change. When it ended, Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe echoed this idea that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions are more im­port­ant than Ber­g­dahl’s mil­it­ary stand­ing. “If Ber­g­dahl had been a Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Hon­or win­ner, it would have min­im­ized the at­ro­city that I feel that was com­mit­ted by Obama for turn­ing these people loose,” he said. (Time also won­ders aloud on its latest cov­er if Ber­g­dahl was worth the price of five Taliban mem­bers.)

“There’s too much em­phas­is on Ber­g­dahl. That is not that im­port­ant,” In­hofe said. “What is im­port­ant is what the pres­id­ent did.”

The Ber­g­dahl me­dia story is fol­low­ing a fa­mil­i­ar arc. Con­sider that in the be­gin­ning of the Snowden leaks, the me­dia swarmed on all the de­tails of his life — re­search­ing his girl­friends, his fam­ily, his activ­ity on In­ter­net for­ums, and so on. As that story evolved, it be­came clear it wasn’t about Snowden as a per­son. It was a story about the state of glob­al es­pi­on­age, and a na­tion­al reck­on­ing of the power of U.S. gov­ern­ment’s sig­nals in­tel­li­gence ap­par­at­us. A year later, there’s still no con­sensus on the ques­tion: Is Snowden a hero or a trait­or? Ex­pect a sim­il­ar path for Ber­g­dahl.

For sure, there are law­makers who want to know Ber­g­dahl’s his­tory and “wheth­er this man was a desert­er or not,” as Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein puts it. And a num­ber of law­makers do think it’s rel­ev­ant wheth­er he deser­ted.

“For the Amer­ic­an people, they would be will­ing to pay a pretty high price if some­body was a com­bat vet­er­an,” Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mark Kirk or Illinois ar­gued. “If a guy was just a desert­er they would not be in­to pay­ing a very high price for get­ting him back.”

The Army has pledged to com­plete a “com­pre­hens­ive” re­view on the cir­cum­stances around Ber­g­dahl’s case, but the res­ults may not come for some time. And in the mean­time, law­makers con­cerned about a myri­ad of oth­er is­sues not re­lated to Ber­g­dahl don’t want to dis­tract from their cri­tiques.

Part of what’s at is­sue is that there is still so much not known about Ber­g­dahl, with re­ports stream­ing out about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his cap­ture by the Taliban. Basing your cri­ti­cism around the pris­on­er swap on Ber­g­dahl’s back­ground could end up back­fir­ing. “The policy that [we are] mak­ing sure we get left-be­hind sol­diers, pris­on­ers of war — in this case, a cap­tured pris­on­er — is the first pri­or­ity,”Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska said.

An­oth­er part of the is­sue is that there is such little pre­ced­ent for this scen­ario — an AWOL sol­dier-turned POW (read­er-his­tor­i­ans, feel free to email us when this has happened be­fore). In that va­cu­um, what we’re see­ing is a clash of long-held U.S. val­ues that serve more as max­ims than iron-clad policy: “We don’t ne­go­ti­ate with ter­ror­ists” (what the Re­pub­lic­ans are say­ing) versus “Leave no one be­hind” (what the White House is say­ing). Ac­cord­ing to an Army spokes­per­son speak­ing to the In­ter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times, “there are no set reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing when or wheth­er a sol­dier can be left be­hind — that it is left to the dis­cre­tion of the com­mand­ing of­ficer.” And the U.S. does ne­go­ti­ate with ter­ror­ists, just not pub­licly.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2005, Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice Re­port, the of­fi­cial U.S. policy re­gard­ing alive pris­on­ers of war (from Vi­et­nam, at least) reads as fol­lows: “Should any re­port prove true [that an Amer­ic­an is still be­ing held cap­tive in Vi­et­nam], we will take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion to en­sure the re­turn of those in­volved.” Al­though there is a pre­ced­ent for char­ging Amer­ic­an POWs after they re­turn home. In 1979, Pfc. Robert R. Gar­wood re­turned to the U.S. after 14 years in Vi­et­nam (he was pris­on­er for at least four of those years). Upon ar­riv­ing home, he was court-mar­tialed and con­victed of col­lab­or­at­ing with the en­emy. All that con­sidered,the Ber­g­dahl scen­ario is still unique.

The story of his pos­sible deser­tion and cap­ture will keep mak­ing head­lines and will draw at­ten­tion. But, for the sake of Wash­ing­ton, this story isn’t about a solider. It is about Guantanamo, the power of the White House versus Con­gress, and the draw­down of the Afgh­anistan war.

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