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.