Bowe Bergdahl was once a hero. Long before federal prosecutors announced last week that they were trying the former prisoner of war on charges of “desertion” and “misbehavior before the enemy,” and prior to last year’s oddly controversial prisoner swap with the Taliban that freed Bergdahl, the army sergeant was something of a right-wing cause célèbre. In 2012, Human Events writer Hope Hodge suggested that the White House had “forgotten him.” Oliver “You Can’t Handle The Truth!” North recommended that everyone wear Bowe Bergdahl remembrance bracelets. No less a red-state eminence than Charlie Daniels tweeted that rescuing Bowe Bergdahl was more important than rescuing General Motors.
But that was then. The original conservative embrace of Bergdahl as the Afghanistan conflict’s version of Willie “Wag the Dog” Schumann was predicated on simple political opportunism: Here was a golden opportunity to depict Barack Obama as an effete commander-in-chief prone to sitting on his hands when it came to cutting a deal to rescue an endangered American POW.
So when Obama surprised his detractors by doing what they wanted and securing Bergdahl’s release, they merely switched up the polarity of their president-baiting rhetoric. Almost overnight Bowe Bergdahl was decommissioned from the ranks of American herodom, a forgotten martyr to Obama’s feckless handling of the military, into a far less distinguished company: the right’s lost detachment of “phony soldiers”—service members who don’t necessarily conform to the assumption that the military is just a slightly heavier armed branch of the Republican party.
To simply read the crisply executed Bergdahl demonization campaign as hypocritical is to ignore the deeper principles that conservatives have consistently adhered to during this entire debacle: attacking Obama and protecting the reputation of the military at all cost. More urgently, an obsessive focus on the moral and legal arguments furiously advanced by the White House’s attackers and defenders overlooks the actual, quite serious matter at the bottom of all the partisan score-settling: the misidentification of a mental health issue as mere cannon fodder for the prosecution of a military culture war.
So let’s pan back and take a fresh look at Bergdahl’s legal plight. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is complicated and probably more than a bit strange to civilians. Its methods are byzantine and odd. The first charge brought against Bergdahl, “desertion,” is straightforward enough: he did, after all, leave his unit in a combat area. The other charge, “misbehavior before the enemy,” is more difficult to reckon. It’s a serious charge, one that could potentially lead to a life sentence, but it’s also quite rare. Foreign Policy indeed noted that the charge
is so rare that there aren’t many examples of how the military justice system has handled it in the past. The Army said that it had such a case in 2005, but wouldn’t provide any details without a Freedom of Information Act request. The Marine Corps last leveled the charge against one of its own in 2004 when it went after a lance corporal who had refused to go on convoy duty in Iraq.
Refusing to go out on a mission makes a bit more sense than an American soldier, who doesn’t speak the language, packing up and setting off on an Afghani sojourn. What Bergdahl did wasn’t necessarily cowardly. It actually strikes me as the opposite of cowardly. It’s so un-cowardly, in fact, that I’d call it fucking loony.
Prior to Bergdahl’s misadventure, the biggest high-profile case of unauthorized detachment from a combat unit involved the Army soldier Robert Bales. In 2012, Bales snuck off his base and went on a killing spree, eventually murdering sixteen Afghani civilians. He had previously deployed four times. He struggled with depression, PTSD, and had drinking problems. He also had rage issues that only got worse as his final deployment approached. Taking this background into account, Bales’s rampage appeared to be a pretty clear-cut case of someone who has lost control of his rational faculties—and, in legal terms, someone who wouldn’t necessarily be held entirely accountable for their actions. One could go further still, and note how Bales’s massacre was an indirect indictment of the entire Long War project itself, laying bare both the overwhelming emotional toll that American service members suffer over the course of repeat deployment, as well as the military’s seeming inability to identify and treat serious psychological issues within its own ranks. But, nope, the military code yielded no such qualified verdicts: Bales is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
In my own limited and anecdotal experience as an infantryman in Iraq, I heard of only one person ever leaving base on his own. According to the gossip, the guy “snapped”: he filled out the paperwork to go on leave, packed his bag, and walked into the Diyala Province, completely unarmed. Rumor had it that he was picked up by a patrol and flown back to Germany that day. The story might be apocryphal, but it’s a good indication of what the circumstances have to be for someone to just leave base, in the middle of a war zone, all alone.
It’s just not something that a sane person would do. And for the Army to classify breakdowns like that as criminal offenses, punishable by prison time, seems so stupid that it almost has to be a willful misinterpretation, advanced in the service of the seemingly sacred mandate to continue denying that numerous and protracted deployments tend to make people lose their fucking minds.
Bergdahl is lucky he’s still alive. I guess the first Taliban members he came across were savvy enough to recognize that he had greater value as a prisoner than a corpse. And for a while, right-wingers made the same canny calculation. Now, however, the Bergdahl well has run dry. And as a result, a guy who wandered off on a Vision Quest in Afghanistan, a swirling vortex of violence at least since Greek antiquity, is going to be tried as if his own impaired state of mind played no role in his otherwise inexplicable decision. And the gruesome ironies here are just beginning. Should Bergdahl be dishonorably discharged, he won’t be entitled to the VA health care that he most likely requires. Clemenceau famously said, “It suffices to add ‘military’ to a word for it to lose its meaning. Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” And as the Bergdahl case threatens to show, military mental health may be the greatest oxymoron of all.