According to reports, Bowe Bergdahl will be charged with desertion based on allegations that he abandoned his post in 2009 “in the middle of a combat zone, potentially putting the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk.” And though there is a range of penalties available for prosecuting him—some are justifiably harsh—NBC News reports that Bergdahl will likely be offered a softer sentence due to the five years he spent in captivity. Bergdahl may avoid prison, be permitted to leave the Army with a “less than honorable discharge,” lose his $300,000 in back pay and be stripped of his rank.
There are many aspects to this case that matter. And some matter more than they should.
First, if the Army moves forward, we’ll probably find out a lot more about the intricacies of the deal that saw President Obama swap five high-level members of the Taliban without notifying Congress. We may even see the media seriously asking if Obama ignored the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. The law requires that the president give Congress 30 days’ notice before releasing anyone from Guantanamo. He did not. The administration claims that Bergdahl’s ill health and threats against the soldier’s life gave the president the power to circumvent Congress. But from most reports, Bergdahl seemed to be in decent-enough health when he returned. So what was his health like? Was his life in imminent-enough danger to justify ignoring the law?
The precedents we set in this case are more important than Bergdahl’s desertion. And these issues should have been thoroughly investigated when Obama was using the family as a photo-op. It’s not only important to figure out if national security decisions are being driven by political expediency, but whether prisoner swaps put American lives in danger in the future.
But even if the administration acted illegally—and even if it set a terrible pattern and damages national security, which it seems to me is the case—Bergdahl’s desertion itself is irrelevant (although if he’s found guilty, you’d hope there would be heavier repercussions for the predictable results of his actions). If we start debating who qualifies as an American soldier worthy of rescue, then the most egregious part of the swap will be lost in the swamp and we take on a debate that has nothing to do with policy.
From what we’ve seen in the media, it’s likely that a number of allegations against Bergdahl have credence. Are future discussions with the Taliban going to be predicated on which Americans have done enough not to be beheaded? Who decides? If the United States now says it’s okay to negotiate with terrorists for the release of captured soldiers, it seems inconceivable (not to mention impractical) for those decisions to be based on the relative bravery or cowardice of the people in question. The Taliban won’t make those distinctions when it captures them or when it executes them. We, on the other hand, have courts to mete out justice and sift through allegations of misconduct. And though the Bergdahl case might end up being clear-cut, it won’t always be that way.