The Obama Administration Needs to Let the Army Decide if Bergdahl Should Be Court-Martialed

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June 2 2014 7:29 PM

Should Bowe Bergdahl Be Court-Martialed?

The Obama administration needs to butt out and let the Army decide if he deserted and should be punished.

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal
By waffling and insinuating that the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl episode closed on a high note with his return, the Obama administration has politicized the event.

U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters

Acting as commander-in-chief, President Obama exchanged five terrorist leaders for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The rationale was that the United States leaves no soldier behind on the battlefield or in enemy hands. That is half of the equation.

The disconcerting other half is that Bergdahl may have left behind his own unit and gone over to the enemy. In 2009, then Pvt. Bergdahl (automatically promoted in absentia to the rank of sergeant) left his frontline unit under the cover of darkness. Soon after, the Taliban reported him in their custody. For weeks, thousands of American soldiers risked their lives to rescue him. Several of these soldiers have posted explicit, detailed accounts of their exhausting efforts, including the names of several Americans killed during the search or in its vicinity. U.S. military and civilian leaders have generally skirted the issue of whether Bergdahl deserted the army, as Secretary of Defense Hagel did again yesterday on Meet The Press.

“I'm not surprised that there are still questions,” he said,  “and until we get the facts exactly what the condition of Sgt. Bergdahl is, we can't go much further in speculation.”

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Hagel was deliberately evasive. Despite his ducking the question, Hagel knows that a lengthy investigation into Bergdahl’s possible desertion has already been conducted, but not released to the public because Bergdahl was still in captivity. Hagel has that investigation. He knows what happened, as do the president and Chief of Staff of the Army.

This ambiguity has put American officials in an awkward position. They are at once celebrating the return of an American captive, regretting the release of five American enemies, and uncomfortably hemming about how America and the Army should welcome back Bergdahl.

A truthful response by the secretary of defense and other administration officials would have been better. Mr. Hagel could have said, “We are grateful Bergdahl has been released. An investigation into his disappearance has been conducted. The United States Army, as his parent organization, will take the matter from here.”

QED. That was all the administration should have said about the matter. Let the Army take care of its own. By waffling and insinuating that the Bergdahl episode closed on a high note with his return, the administration has politicized the event. The Bergdahl episode hasn’t finished: It is just getting started. It won’t be over until the Army determines whether Bergdahl deserted his unit, and whether he should be subject to court martial and punished.

By any reckoning, the release of five dedicated Taliban terrorists was a high price to pay for the return of a single American captive. It will be a price worth paying only if the Army is allowed to live up to its own high standards. Left to its own procedures, the Army as an institution will proceed with a thorough judicial investigation. Most probably this will result in a court-martial. The evidence is too compelling to be ignored. If there is a finding of guilt, a judge may mitigate the sentence.

But not to proceed with a judicial course would harm the integrity of the Army. There is a deep anger throughout the ranks about Bergdahl’s behavior. The administration would be well advised not have anything more to do with Bergdahl. Let the Army system work. The Army can be trusted to follow the correct course. 

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

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