Friday, June 6, 2014

We'll support our troops, if they're heroes

     It would look trite in fiction.
     It would look trite in comic fiction, in an ironically titled Christopher Buckley novel, “Support Our Troops,” about American hypocritical militarism, our flag-waving armchair generals spouting idiocy. Buckley would have Republicans in full lather over lapses at VA hospitals — a historical constant if ever there were — and just as they are anguishing over vets’ woes going untreated, in midcry a soldier would be plucked from Afghanistan. Immediately the critics pivot 180 degrees, demanding to know why are we rescuing this deserter?
     I’d look up from my book and think: “Oh Chris, this is too much. It’d never happen.”
     Even my own paper, in an editorial Thursday, characterized Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s walking away from his unit at an outpost in Afghanistan in 2009 as “rash,” “foolishness” and, to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps “more stupid than disloyal.”
     There is another option.
     Is it possible that a soldier wandering off, unarmed, in a state Afghan villagers thought resembled a narcotic daze, might not be foolish, but unhinged? That he might have psychological problems? Is that not possible?
     While you’re chewing on that, let me ask:
     If Bergdahl was, as he seems to be, a deserter, is he the first one? Or does the Army face a problem with soldiers walking away from their posts, even stateside, for reasons ranging from irresponsibility to insanity?
     Spoiler alert: yes.
     Since 2000, about 40,000 American soldiers have deserted in all branches of the military, according to the Pentagon. That matches the desertion in all of World War II.
     Not everyone who deserts is mentally ill. Top reasons include family or financial problems. Some just don’t like the military; “failure to adapt,” it’s called. None of that is being considered for Bergdahl, whose hometown canceled his welcome celebration, lest it devolve into a spectacle of protesters, who seem to take a 19th century view of desertion: it’s cowardice, pure and simple, give him a brandy and ship him back to the front or clap him in irons and ship him to jail.
     If we've learned one lesson from all things military, it is to be deeply skeptical when the Army serves up a front-line story. Pat Tillman's death didn't turn out to be the heroic tale the Army first spun. Nor did Pfc. Jessica Lynch, darling of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ever fire her weapon. Bergdahl, too, has a story to tell, and shouldn't a nation that actually supported our troops, that had even a flimsy, secondhand, pretend understanding that war is hell, wait to hear it?
     Nah, it's too tempting to chew on Barack Obama for doing it, for swapping five Taliban prisoners, as if now these jokers are going to defeat our country, as if there weren't 5,000 waiting to take their place. As if, had we refused to ransom Bergdahl, the next time a dazed soldier wanders into a Taliban stronghold, they'd tell him to keep walking. "Remember the man Bergodahla? For five years we fed him and it got us nothing . . . "
     Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who last week was demanding Obama personally apologize to the families of those who died waiting for VA treatment, paused, took a breath, then condemned Obama for saving a soldier who perhaps—I'd say obviously—had some kind of front-line breakdown.
     My wife, as always, had the best, sharpest reaction to all this. When she heard that five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were being swapped for this soldier, she said: "We should have swapped them all."
     Bingo. Anybody who actually cares about terrorist recruitment would have closed Guantanamo years ago. Whatever direct threat these unfortunates pose is minuscule compared with the blot that the existence of this oubliette from a Poe nightmare puts on what is left of America's good name.
     Friday is June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day. If we hadn't kicked the Nazis out of Europe, they'd still be there. Army Rangers scaled the cliff at Pointe du Hoc into the teeth of German machine guns. And if later, one of those Rangers threw down his gun and walked into the Ardennes woods during the Battle of the Bulge, who is going to call him a coward? You? The vast majority of deserters, 90 percent, are never tried. It would compound the tragedy if Bergdahl is hung out to dry to appease a vindictive nation.
     Supporting our troops is meaningless if the only troops we support are the heroes who need it least. Not everybody is a hero. It's a volunteer Army. Soldiers sign up for many reasons, but nobody signs up to wander into the Afghan wasteland and become a Taliban prisoner for five years. This nation owes its soldiers much; some sympathy and benefit of the doubt is not asking too much.


  1. Thanks for this column. I'm glad at least one person doesn't look on this soldier as some kind of evil traitor.

  2. Neil,

    Given the comments of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers, it does not sound like this was a case of mental illness but a choice on his part. However, that remains to be settled through an investigation. The problem was that the administration did not mention the murkier aspects of this situation and tried to paint it as something to celebrate. Someone did not do their homework. Plus, good people died trying to find this guy. That wasn't mentioned either by the administration. And so, I'm not surprised at all by the anger over this guy and how Obama's team handled the situation. I'm angry as well but I'm willing to change my mind depending upon the investigation.

    Neither you nor I served in the military but I know from those who did that desertion in a war zone especially by someone on guard duty is one of the most heinous things a soldier can do. It places his/her fellow soldiers in danger. Several soldiers died looking for this guy and it looks like he broke faith with them and may have even aided the Taliban.

    1. I didn't have room to enter into the "several soldiers died looking for this guy" aspect, but when you hear accounts of soldiers dying in Afghanistan, they are usually "on patrol," i.e., driving around, trying to project power and engage the enemy. Looking for this guy seems an added purpose. And if this was a decision, it was a decision to ... do what? Blend happily into the countryside? That's ... for want of a better word ... crazy. If he were such a bad egg, then why did we go get him?

    2. Neil's column is spot on.
      There is a duty to disobey an unlawful order.

      This is the code of U.S. Military Justice.
      Until further information presents itself, I assume this.

    3. Neil,

      The soldiers in his unit and his unit leader and others have publicly said that the patrols were carried out specifically for the purpose of finding Bergdahl and some of them did die while carrying out that mission. However, let's wait for the investigation and get the whole story.

  3. Great column Neil.

    I've seen no reports that Bergdahl was on guard duty. He was allowed to "walk off" the post unchallenged, which has raised questions among military professionals about an unguarded perimeter in a dangerous war zone. In any event, there is little question that he went AWOL but without specific information of his intentions a charge of desertion might be hard to sustain under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

    That several soldiers died looking for him is evidently an unproven, and perhaps unprovable, assertion. All patrols in that area were dangerous, whether or not they were looking for Bergdahl.

    The politization of this is disturbing, but unsurprising. An excellent editorial in today's New York Times nails John McCain with an earlier quote that suggests he was for an exchange before he was vehemently against it. And then there were all those Republican pols who were caught "untweeting" their initial approvals.

    On the threat posed by the released "terrorists," five for one seems like a pretty good deal seeing that the Israelis, who can do no wrong in such matters, recently gave up a thousand to get one guy back. And your wife was probably right. If these five were "the worst of the worst," in Senator McCain's words, why have we not been able to convict them of their crimes in the twelve years they have spent in Guantanamo? Most of the civilized world will hold that "justice delayed is justice denied" is a concept that should not apply only to American citizens.

    1. I have seen numerous reports online that he was on guard duty and a few which say he had finished guard duty. Let's wait and get all the facts but I have to admit that I'm no fan of his at least based upon what I've seen so far.

  4. Whether on not you are a fan of his is not relevant. As it isn't in the case of all those GOP polls who pushed for his return until it was Obama who ended up making it happen.. Soldiers need to know that if they fall into the hands of the enemy the nation will do everything possible to get them back. Whether or not he was guilty of somthing is a matter for the military justice system to deal with.

  5. Regarding the pols (both Dems and GOP) who aren't happy with Obama's handling of this situation, you may be wrong to suggest that their current views are because they are upset that Obama got the job done. These pols may have wanted Bergdahl back as much as Obama but think that the deal was a bad one. That does not make them opportunists. In fact, the Taliban has already said that kidnapping our soldiers to trade for their detainees in Gitmo is going to be a new priority for them. You think that's a good thing?


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