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
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Elahe Izadi and Brian Resnick
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.”’

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.

Contributions by Sarah Mimms

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