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Deserters, Traitors and Resisters
A Long Tradition of Those Who Walk Away From War
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The United States military should consider itself lucky that it only has Bowe Bergdahl. During the Vietnam War nearly 420,000 soldiers deserted, which means that they left their posts without any intent to return or failed to show up for deployment. Those who were gone for more than a month were administratively categorized as having deserted. Some were caught, some were able to change their names and keep a low profile to avoid attention in the US, while still others disappeared into the black market economy of Southeast Asia, sometimes selling drugs and weapons. Some who were caught were tried but most were dealt with administratively. None was executed. In fact the last US soldier to be executed for desertion was Private Eddie Slovik in the Second World War, the only soldier to be so punished, reportedly to set an example. The British, Germans and Russians were much more inclined to execute those who fled the battlefield, often summarily.

After the Vietnam War was over there were several amnesties for deserters, but the accused had to turn themselves in to obtain pardon and they were also penalized with a bad conduct discharge which is a permanent blot on one’s record, rather like being convicted of a felony in a civilian court. Several thousand deserters from Vietnam are still being sought on federal warrants and every year a few more men in their sixties are identified, arrested and punished to varying degrees.

Bowe Bergdahl has been described by some as the only deserter from the US-led war in Afghanistan, a label that is not strictly accurate as his story is somewhat convoluted and the US Army authorities are not completely convinced that he left his post with no intention of returning. And there are also accounts of other deserters in Afghanistan who did not make the news because they did not have the misfortune of being captured and held prisoner by the Taliban. One of those deserters was Sergeant Robert Bales who left his base in March 2012 to kill sixteen villagers. One presumes he had no intention to return to duty. Others who left their posts in Afghanistan under similar circumstances to Bergdahl most often wound up being recovered by friendly forces or returned voluntarily when they discovered that once you start walking in the harsh Afghan terrain it is a long way to get to anywhere you might want to be without any 7-11s along the way.

Deserting one’s comrades in arms is indeed a heinous crime as it potentially puts everyone in an army unit at risk but it is an understandable consequence of wars that are essentially elective and which have little bearing on actual national security. Only 40,000 US troops deserted during the entire Second World War, a conflict that was widely regarded as a “good war.” No one wants to be the last American to die in Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia or Libya or Syria because it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it would be dying for nothing, just as soldiers on the ground in Vietnam figured out that the war was unwinnable and became demoralized long before the generals and politicians came to the same conclusion.

Bergdahl’s detractors often note that his letters and emails indicated that he had a bad attitude about Afghanistan and about the army in general. I suspect that few or even none of those critics have ever served in uniform. Soldiers bitch a lot, almost incessantly, even in good wars where morale will be relatively high. I served in a safe intelligence post during Vietnam and the complaining was nevertheless constant, often rendered by the expression “Fuck the Army” which was conveniently shortened to FTA and could sometimes be seen spray painted on buildings and walls at military bases. Would any of us have done a Bergdahl walkabout? If we could have figured out a way to do it without getting punished for the rest of our lives we sure would have.

Some conscript soldiers focused completely on getting out as their sole excuse for staying in. They developed what was then described as a “short timers’ attitude” of not giving a damn when they had a year left to go. Many soldiers had calendars marking down the days to separation from the service and a return to “the world,” the real serious countdown starting when you went under 100 days and became a two digit midget with 99 days left.

So Bergdahl is being blamed for having an attitude, which is something common to soldiers, and is being condemned in advance for the felony charge of desertion which the army itself has not get decided to be applicable. Even if there is a case to be made there might be no prosecution due to his prolonged incarceration and torture at the hands of the Taliban.

The other, perhaps more serious aspect of the Bergdahl case is the fact that he wound up in the army at all after being discharged from the Coast Guard as unsuitable after only 26 days of training. That the military has struggled to maintain manpower levels over the past thirteen years is undeniable and many who are psychologically or physically unsuited for the demands of military service have no doubt been able to pass muster. But the problem soldiers of today are few and far between compared to Vietnam at its height, when army service was often a get out of jail card, when minimal education standards were generally not enforced, and where a breakdown in army discipline at all levels was evident. There were race riots on army bases and navy ships and drug use was extensive. In my basic training company there were two soldiers who were so mentally handicapped that they could not respond to simple questions and one soldier kept having to repeat training because he was grossly overweight, one suspected for medical reasons, and could not meet minimum physical requirements. My job was to march behind him when we were in the field and periodically prod him with my rifle butt so he wouldn’t fall out of the formation. Shame on me.

All of the above is not to suggest that there should be some relativism applicable to military service, but Bergdahl is far from unique. Wars of choice are an awfully hard sell, particularly when a naïve young soldier finds that instead of defending freedom he is actually punishing local people for reasons that neither he nor the natives can comprehend. Perhaps someone in Washington should figure out that soldiers perform much better when they are actually performing a duty that can be construed as worthwhile, but that would mean an end to the presidential prerogative of preemptive warfare so there is little chance of that. All the buzz inside the beltway at the moment is about what must be done in Iraq, meaning that the only remaining question is just how to use military resources to produce some vaguely defined but intensely desired result. Nearly five thousand dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis testify to the fact that sending in soldiers as a first option to fix things is a very bad idea.

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  1. Don Nash says: • Website

    Well said Mr. Giraldi. Remember how the boots used to frag the officers a way back in the Nam? Usually with a claymore. Oh dang, those were some heady times.

  2. TomB says:

    Mr. Giraldi’s comments seem fine so far as they go, but I wonder if there aren’t some other issues this Bergdahl business doesn’t implicate.

    For instance, one thing one senses from what’s been made public about his actions is that it wasn’t so much the fact of our presence in Afghanistan that motivated him, but the specific nature and terms of his service that put him ’round the bend. And indeed one suspects that’s often the case with deserters: After all there’s a difference between a resistor who refuses to serve in the first place, and then those who do not find the overall war or conflict so objectionable as to resist but then get fed up with the specifics of their deployment and then walk away.

    So that’s one sub-issue here: The question of the smartness of trying to use the military to go “nation building” instead of fighting, when the fact is to “nation build” seems to require you to use your people where they are still under fire here and there but are forced to pretend that the surrounding population really wants you there and likes you.

    Yet another sub-issue seems to me to be why, when Obama clearly has never liked our Afghanistan deployment, he has so dragged his feet getting out of there. (And sticking the Bergdahls in the position of possibly being the last men to die in that country.) It may be politically wise for Obama to do so, but let’s not start agreeing that it’s okay for a Prez. to allow those considerations to overcome his greater obligation to not put U.S. troops in that sort of situation.

    There’s also then the curious (to me) question of why Obama seemed to so move heaven and earth to free Bergdahl at all. Certainly there’s at least a ton of evidence that he could have cited (if anyone was even pushing him, which they weren’t other than perhaps Bergdahl’s parents) that Bergdahl has voluntarily gone and walked off and found the Taliban. So why go incurring the cost he did freeing those Guantanamo guys for him?

    Seems to me no doubt Obama chose to sustain *more* political damage rather than far less if not none by doing what he did.

    So why?

    Hard not to conclude that it’s not a sort of ideological statement of support for Bergdahl on the part of Obama, which is not very friendly to the rank and file military service folks. Sort of an … infantile Leftism on his part/the part of his advisors.

    After all, right now and for a long time now there’s been an entirely innocent U.S. soldier sitting in a Mexican jail simply because he took a wrong turn and accidentally drove into Mexico (while on duty), while armed. So how come Obama is so delicate with the Mexican government in demanding this man’s freeing?

    Again, hard to ignore the idea that it’s ideology of a sort. “No no!” that is, “one must never ask anything of the Mexicans much less be harsh with them…”

    All of these sub-issues then, along with so many more, seem to me to be grist for the idea that we really don’t have a great handle on Obama’s thinking. On the one hand he seems so … pliable, and then on the other so prone to go off making these pointy-sounding “oh so Moral” little statements.

    He’s a funny duck in many ways I think.

  3. The closest I got to military service was working, briefly, as a civilian (shipfitter) employee of the Coast Guard at Boston’s North End Station, and later, for a longer period of time, as a civilian (maintenance carpenter) employee of a U.S. Government contractor that provided services to the Fifth Signal Corps in what was then still West Germany. So, I don’t claim to be an authority on military life. I will say, though, that two books, among many others, stand out as having added significantly to my understanding of modern U.S. Army history. Soldier, by Anthony B. Herbert, Lt. Col. (Ret.), is autobiographical, and Ike the Soldier: As The Knew Him, by Merle Miller, is a biography. I didn’t begin to understand the Vietnam War or WWII until I read these. Miller devotes six pages to Pvt. Eddie Slovik, his crimes, his trial, and his execution on January 31, 1945, including much of the text of his handwritten letter to Gen. Eisenhower “begging for clemency,” a letter that Ike probably never read.

  4. Vietnam was fought by a lot of draftees who had no choice in the matter. We fight with a volunteer force now, so defections, desertions, etc. have a different coloration.

    My armchair Psychologist 2 cents about Bergdahl is that he is an insufficiently socialized loner, deeply invested in a sort of mountain individualism that typifies some Westerners. These types don’t do regimentation well. An irony here is that a fair percentage of old Westerners were deserters from the US Army of the 19th Century. The old army of the west had massive desertion rates. Many men in the east joined just to get free transport west in order to desert, having enlisted under false names!

    Another aspect is the highly idealistic propaganda the military inculcates in recruits. In order to condition them too do what must be done, they fill their heads about the us military as a “Force for Good.” When you are an individualist who genuinely believes this, you are likely to get profoundly disenchanted in places like Afghanistan.

  5. fnn says:

    Stories of American deserters in WWII Europe from the now defunct Loompanics:

  6. Dave37 says:

    Sounds like he was there alright. Being an Army that depended on the draft made it accept some very questionable people and I never saw the Army turn down anyone(!) in my vietnam era time. There were a lot of runaways in Saigon, mostly inner city gang youth, who were into heavy drugs like Heroin. You didn’t go into that part of the city that they hung out in. I think a lot of them stayed there after the US pullout, no idea what happened to them, but I would doubt that there were a great many who bugged out for political reasons only. That may be because many could find a way out in the states (or Canada), such as picking the right mos, national guard, reserves, stateside duty acquired with some pull, etc. Bergdahl on the other hand just seems like a lost smuck and Bales went nuts. Vietnam you usually got one year, in ‘stan they seem to be there for the duration.

  7. gdpbull says:

    Surely most of the 420,000 deserters during the Vietnam war did not desert “in country”, but deserted from their units while stationed in the US. Are there any statistics on the actual number who deserted while stationed in South Vietnam?

  8. I’ve lived in Idaho for 36 years so I may show some favoritism. First I had no idea that a person was innocent until speculation reached critical mass
    Why not sit back and let the investigation happen?
    I was a resister during the Vietnam POLICE ACTION, it was not termed a war. It too was illegal just as all our present conflicts are. We send our young unto wars of imperalism and they don’t have a clue till they see the reality lying blown up all around.
    So please consider your words carefully he just might be innocent.

  9. TomB says:

    @ oneleggedraven:

    First off, as the latin implies there’s long been recognized the validity of the idea of prima facie judgments, where, true, final judgment is withheld, but where we (with the law recognizing this too) don’t have to be utter fools in the face of tons of in your face evidence of something.

    Secondly, even if the law were to rule that he hadn’t “deserted,” that’s still just as per the law’s definition, and there’s nothing that says that colloquial and other meanings have no validity. For instance, Jonathan Pollard wasn’t convicted technically of treason. But is anyone really going to deny he betrayed this country and that his actions weren’t treasonous?

    There’s a million reasons why the law may not pronounce upon something, for loophole reasons, for prosecutorial discretion in charging reasons. Once again though we don’t have to be stone stupid in the face of same. Nixon was pardoned; does that mean we have to regard him the same as George Washington?

    Thirdly, it’s a rather piquant thing seeing you being so insistent on legal technicalities when it comes to Bergdahl, but then apparently confess that just because you and you alone felt that Vietnam was not a proper war that you could dodge the draft. No court *ever* held it was not a war. Indeed, every court in which the question was pertinent held it was a war. The fact is it has *always* been recognized that we could be at a state of war with no formal declaration of same from Congress whatsoever. I can think of *no* legal commentator who did not in the end admit that it was a constitutional war, including the biggest anti-war law Professor out there at the time Richard Falk. There is just absolutely *no* basis to even argue Vietnam wasn’t a valid constitutional war, not least because there was not only the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing the *unlimited* use of force, but then the serial funding and other bills passed by Congress thereafter authorizing and paying for every jot and tittle we spent and did over there.

    So on the one hand as regards Bergdahl you’re saying “wait for the courts, wait for the courts!,” and on the other, when it comes to you, suddenly you’re saying “ignore the courts!, ignore the courts!”

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it would be dying for nothing”
    It seems to take something that our politicos lack. Bergdahl is either smarter than them, more moral, or both. Maybe the kind of justifications and dishonesty required to lie the American people into a manufactured public opinion make one more or less addled, more in the case of the Grahams, McCains and the outright cheerleaders, less moronic in the case of most of the rest of the intellectually and morally supine.

  11. ” one soldier kept having to repeat training because he was grossly overweight, one suspected for medical reasons, and could not meet minimum physical requirements. My job was to march behind him when we were in the field and periodically prod him with my rifle butt so he wouldn’t fall out of the formation. Shame on me.”

    That could have been me, but I wasn’t that overweight at the time (March, 1967). I just barely passed basic training. Once I got to Cam Ranh Bay, however, I started eating most meals at the cafeteria instead of the mess hall and packed on a fair number of pounds I didn’t lose until I got out of the Army in 1970.

    Phil is one hundred percent correct about soldiers’ attitudes in Vietnam. In my unit, we had a First Sergeant who had a grenade tossed in his hooch. At another location, the base colonel almost got run over by a truck from the transportation battalion. The sergeant in my platoon – a big black guy everyone hated – carried a .25 automatic in case one of us decided to brain him with a 2×4 some night.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Richard Steven Hack

    ” one soldier kept having to repeat training because he was grossly overweight, one suspected for medical reasons, and could not meet minimum physical requirements.”

    Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket immediately came to mind.

  13. A very fine article. Moral clarity at it’s best.

  14. The Vietnam War taught the Pentagon and the US government one invaluable lesson, which is that you can’t wage long-term, profit making wars with conscript troops. Professor Noam Chomsky makes a convincing argument that the fragging of officers (which was more common and wide-spread than generally assumed) along with a flat refusal by many conscript troops to pick up arms and fight, is the real reason why the US abandoned a good, money making war that would have probably lasted much longer than it did.

  15. Dave37 says:

    From my experience there, I disagree that was any significant refusal to fight by conscript troops because of idealogical opinion but there was some among the black conscripts and a few others which was emphasized in other ways. I am sure the Pentagon realized a volunteer Army was more manageable. The few fragging types of events I was familar with were by persons who you wouldn’t want to invite over for dinner.

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