Vietnam-Era Precedent for Trying Bergdahl
The Marine Corps threw the book at a Vietnam-era POW, and he hadn't even deserted.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

There are many facets to the Bowe Bergdahl affair. Most commentators have focused on the asymmetric trade of five high-ranking Taliban for now-sergeant Bergdahl. I think that the exchange was a mistake, but I will leave that discussion to others. I am more interested in the status of Bergdahl and the circumstances surrounding how he ended up in the hands of the Taliban.

Interestingly, there is a parallel that no one, as far as I know, has yet mentioned: the case of Marine Pfc. Robert Garwood, who ended up in the hands of the Viet Cong just outside Da Nang after going missing on September 28, 1965. In 1983, I reviewed a book on Garwood, Conversations with the Enemy,  by Winston Groom (author of Forrest Gump) and Duncan Spencer. My Washington Times review has vanished, but the story has stayed with me.


Garwood was tried by general court-martial for collaborating with the enemy. Though he denied the charge, he was convicted of aiding the enemy, reduced in rank to private, and dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps, which meant that he forfeited all back pay and veterans’ benefits.

As I recall, I reviewed the book favorably, noting that it provided a balanced view of Garwood. Groom and Spencer portrayed him as neither an anti-war hero nor a criminal, but as someone trying to survive under extremely difficult circumstances. Garwood was held by the Viet Cong (VC) in the South until 1969 and then by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). All prisoners were (presumably) released in 1973, and Garwood was reportedly among them. But he did not return to the United States until 1979. Nonetheless, I concluded, from the testimony of other POWs, both in the South and the North, that Garwood was properly convicted of collaboration.

There are some obvious parallels between Garwood and Bergdahl. But the biggest difference is that Garwood did not desert. He claims to have gotten lost after being dispatched (he was a driver) to pick up an officer on the Da Nang base. A more sordid version is that he was on a “skivvy run” and was captured in a brothel near the base. Once in the hands of the VC and later the NVA, he claims that what he did was in order to survive.

From press reports and the testimony of other soldiers who served with him, Bergdahl appears to be a deserter, and desertion is a far more serious crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is than collaboration with the enemy, serious as the latter may be. Thus it would seem appropriate for the Army to proceed with an investigation into the circumstances surrounding how Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban and, if necessary, to try him for desertion by general court-martial.

However, this process is complicated by an egregious case of “command influence.” Most cases of command influence involve the charge that a senior military officer is attempting to railroad those charged with a crime. Some sexual-assault cases have been reversed because of prosecutorial zeal driven in part by a commander who wants a conviction. The current commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, has also been accused of undue command influence in the court-marital of several Marine snipers who urinated on the bodies of Taliban members the snipers had dispatched.

In Bergdahl’s case, President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice have publicly depicted Bergdahl as a returning hero, apparently before ascertaining the facts about whether he was a legitimate POW. Rice even claimed that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” This also constitutes undue command influence.

One wonders if the president was aware of the questions surrounding how Bergdahl ended up in the hands of the Taliban. Reports indicate that the military knew that Bergdahl had taken steps that appear to have constituted desertion. Either the Department of Defense passed this information to the president, who chose to ignore it, or it didn’t, in which case someone at the Pentagon needs to be held accountable.

Despite my conclusion that Garwood was properly convicted of collaboration with the enemy, I felt, thanks to Conversations with the Enemy, real sympathy for him. I feel no such sympathy for Bergdahl. I doubt he will be charged with desertion or even the lesser charge of absent without leave (AWOL). But he should be. Whether he is in fact convicted must ultimately depend on the evidence.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


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