The Corner

Law & the Courts

Bowe Bergdahl: Deserter or World’s Dumbest Whistleblower?

Thanks to a preliminary hearing in Bowe Bergdahl’s court-martial proceeding, we now know the broad outlines of his defense:

Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl was fed up. He was five weeks into a deployment in southeastern Afghanistan and frustrated with his mission and his leaders. He and his fellow soldiers weren’t going after the Taliban as aggressively as he wanted, and his sense of disillusion added to the disgust for the Army that he had begun developing while still in basic training.

Looking to make a stand, Bergdahl hatched a plan: He would run away from his platoon’s tiny outpost in Paktika province late on June 29, 2009. He would stay away from the Army a day, maybe two, and then reappear about 19 miles away at a larger installation and demand to air his grievances with a general. He knew that the region was crawling with insurgents, but he had “outsize impressions of his own capabilities,” according to an investigating officer, and was determined to create enough chaos to get the attention of senior commanders.

Well, he certainly succeeded in creating chaos:

Coalition forces across eastern Afghanistan altered their operations that summer looking for Bergdahl, exposing soldiers to additional and dangerous missions. That remains a sensitive point, amid allegations from Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers that at least six U.S. troops died because of his actions. Dahl said he examined a variety of evidence, and found nothing that connected the deaths directly to Bergdahl. But the search-and-rescue operations undoubtedly altered security in the region, military officials said, and plunged the units involved into hastily planned missions.

His defense team is trying to get the serious charges dropped, claiming that he didn’t desert — merely that he was absent without leave (AWOL) from the moment he left his post until the moment the Taliban captured him. Yet given that Bergdahl knew his disappearance would cause the Army to alter its operations (indeed, he apparently chose the moment of departure to coincide with the arrival of a platoon that could aid in his search), this was no mere AWOL. Indeed, Article 99 of the UCMJ defines “misbehavior before the enemy” as occurring when a member of the military — “before or in the presence of the enemy” – ”through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property.” Bergdahl endangered the safety of multiple units, and he may have even cost American soldiers their lives.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t have supporters. Months ago, The Nation’s Richard Kreitner placed Bergdahl within the “honorable history of war deserters” and declared that if “accounts were correct” Bergdahl – in classic Nation-ese — “served on the front lines of the American imperial machine with the unenviable misfortune of doing so with eyes wide open.” From the evidence introduced at the preliminary hearing, however, his best argument isn’t that he served with “eyes wide open” but rather that he labored under a series of absurd delusions — and should be held fully responsible for the consequences of his actions.

I doubt that the Army will toss the serious charges against Bergdahl — at least it’s unlikely at this preliminary stage. His court-martial awaits.

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