It says a lot about the American military that Bowe Bergdahl is the only notable example of a soldier deserting his unit despite over 14 years of tough fighting in Afghanistan. For those not familiar with him, Bergdahl walked off his base in 2009 due to dissatisfaction with his leadership. This idea turned out to be just as stupid as it sounds, and he was quickly captured by the Taliban and held for five years.
Because nobody abandons their post anymore, there isn’t much recent precedent about how to punish somebody that does. Only one soldier has been executed for desertion since the Civil War, and that decision was made in part to stop others from deserting. Thanks to the professionalism of the U.S. Army, that isn’t a problem now.
But that doesn’t mean deserting can just be ignored. Somehow, the military commission in charge of Bergdahl’s case seems ready to do that:
In a memorandum dated Friday, the legal team said it agreed with Lt. Col. Mark Visger’s conclusion that their client be referred to a special court-martial and receive neither jail time nor a punitive [dishonorable] discharge.
The recommendation, which hasn’t been announced publicly by the U.S. military, is a significant development for Bergdahl, who in March was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
This decision is ridiculous. There is still one level of review left, so the Army may come to its senses. But it is an insult to even suggest that someone who abandons their post in wartime should just be released. He deserves a dishonorable discharge and a jail sentence at a minimum – and he should feel very fortunate if that’s all that happens to him. Nobody made him join the Army, and nobody should feel sorry for him if he received the traditional punishment for traitors – a bullet – instead of a plane ticket home.
This hesitancy to punish one of the worst crimes a soldier can commit against his country is a prime example of the kind of fundamental weakening of America we have seen under the Obama administration. Make no mistake: our enemies notice this kind of decision, and it makes them bolder about fighting our troops and attacking our interests overseas. No commander should enjoy punishing a soldier, but a good commander knows it is sometimes necessary. It will be a worrying sign if all the punishment Bowe Bergdahl receives is being kicked out of the same Army he voluntarily abandoned when it needed him.