National Column: Bergdahl should be pitied, not severely punished

by Rosie DiManno

The last American soldier executed for desertion was Pte. Eddie Slovik, during the Second World War.

The only one out of more than 200,000 convicted deserters in the years of that global convict.

Prior to Slovik being shot by a firing squad in France, the last deserter executed was in the Civil War.

Yet the current president of the United States, candidate Donald Trump as he then was, made his wishes for notorious walk-away Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl well-known at a campaign rally in Las Vegas two years ago.

“We’re tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed.” Then he mimed pulling a trigger. “Thirty years ago he, he would have been shot.”

When asked about those comments last week, as the sentencing hearing for Bergdahl began at Fort
Bragg, Trump mostly held his tongue – unusual for this commander-in-chief – saying only that his views had been clearly asserted in his original inflammatory statement.

And that’s problematic for the military judge who will decide Bergdahl’s punishment, possibly as early as Monday.

As president, Trump – with his five deferrals to avoid Vietnam – is commander-in-chief of the armed services. Military commanders are forbidden from giving even the appearance of influence in a legal case. Bergdahl’s lawyers cited Trump’s meddling as grounds for dismissal early this month. The judge tossed that gambit aside but, with Trump essentially doubling down, it is believed he’s possibly reconsidering.

Which would be just the latest twist in a fraught eight-year saga.

There is no doubt that Bergdahl – delusionally unfit for military service as an exhaustive investigation subsequently determined – abandoned his remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province in 2009, purportedly in search of a senior commander about 190 kilometres away. His intention was to complain about things he believed were not being done properly in his unit. In a last lengthy email to his parents before undertaking his quixotic mission, Bergdahl – described by platoon mates as a loner and grouser – wrote: “I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of U.S. soldiers is just the lie of fools …”

A foolish crusade with tragic consequences: Bergdahl, lost, was almost immediately captured by members loyal to the Haqqani terrorist network. A massive, prolonged, dangerous search-and-rescue operation was undertaken, in which two solders were severely wounded. One was shot in the leg, a wound that would require 18 surgeries and his forced medical retirement. Another was shot in the head in a firefight during the manhunt. He lost his ability to speak and now uses a wheelchair. (It’s been alleged others were killed but this has never been confirmed as directly related to the search.)

“Everybody in Afghanistan was looking for Bergdahl,” Capt. John Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader, testified last week.

The hapless Bergdahl spent five years in captivity, in brutal conditions, videos of the prisoner released by the Taliban for propaganda purposes.

While “no one left behind” is a core value of the military, political wrangling has always underlined, and undermined, the Bergdahl matter. There were shudders when Washington controversially swapped five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo for Bergdahl’s freedom in 2014, following five years of surreptitious negotiations with the hostage-takers. While president Barack Obama didn’t grant Bergdahl formal clemency for the crime of desertion, the exchange triggered wide disapproval in the military community and beyond. Obama worsened the situation when he stood in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents, absurdly extolling their son for serving “with honour and distinction.”

There was certainly distinction, of the deplorable kind, but definitely no honour.

Bergdahl, 31, pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges of “desertion before the enemy” and misbehaviour, thus avoiding a trial. He faces up to five years in military prison for the desertion counts and possible life imprisonment for misbehaviour (endangering troops) – a charge rarely laid since the Second World War.

Of course he won’t be executed and he won’t receive life either.

Bergdahl is more to be pitied – and scorned – than severely punished. This was a young man who should never have passed the winnowing tests for military service, so clearly psychologically unfit for combat.

Indeed, he was admitted to the army only on a waiver after washing out of coast guard training. But at that time, with America fighting two wars – in Afghanistan and Iraq – the army was desperate for rank-and-file troops and standards were loosened.

By admitting his guilt – no plea-deal was made – Bergdahl is likely hoping that the military veteran on the bench will sift stupidity from treason and go easy, possibly no more than five years and his captivity recognized as time served. That wouldn’t sit well with many observers but it would at least end this interminable mess.

A merciful resolution – and Bergdahl indisputably suffered at the hands of his abductors, treated brutally, kept in chains, for a while in a cage – has been advocated by the high-ranking officer who conducted a two-month probe of the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance. Lt.-Gen. Kenneth Dahl testified (at a pretrial hearing) that Bergdahl was “unrealistically idealistic” but also truthful in the interviews. Although this part beggars belief, there’s no evidence that Bergdahl ever gave up troop positions or other inside information he may have possessed. Dahl concluded that Bergdahl should not be sent to prison.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony came last week, from former navy SEAL James Hatch, the commando shot in the leg with an AK-47.

Depressed, Hatch experienced dark times on his return stateside, washing away his physical and physic wounds with booze and drugs. “I wanted to be a zombie and I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” he told The Associated Press in an interview after testifying.

Yet even Hatch has reversed his loathing and desire for vengeance against Bergdahl, has altered his views.

“It has gone from ëI would like to kill him’ to ëhe should go to jail forever’, to where I’m at now, which is far more peaceful,” he said. “Having spoken to others who are aware of more of the details of his walking off, and his treatment once he was captured, I am very happy that I do not have to choose what happens to him.”

Hatch would prefer that Bergdahl be dishonourably discharged – that’s crucial – which would make him ineligible for veterans’ benefits.

Others insist Bergdahl should get an honourable discharge because he did serve and is entitled to those benefits.

That is preposterous.

Best that Bergdahl be stripped of his uniform and fade away, left to a lifetime haunted by the knowledge of what was sacrificed because of his monumental idiocy.

If he has a conscience.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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