June 3, 2014 / 9:13 PM / 4 years ago

COLUMN-Bowe Bergdahl's court-martial by the press

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

June 3 (Reuters) - The Army has no immediate plans to punish Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for leaving his post in Afghanistan, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in a statement on Tuesday, putting Bergdahl’s medical and psychological needs first. Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for the past five years, was swapped over the weekend for five Talban heavyweights imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

That doesn’t mean Bergdahl is off the hook. Already, the 28-year-old soldier has been called a traitor by members of his platoon in the pages of the New York Daily News and on CNN. Members of his unit have blamed him in the New York Times for the deaths of other troopers sent out to rescue him, although the newspaper heavily discounts those claims. James Rosen has even published on FoxNews.com a piece sourced anonymously to the Defense Department speculating that Bergdahl was an “active collaborator with the enemy.”

So instead of facing an Army court-martial for allegedly deserting his post on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl finds himself facing a brisk public court-martial in the press. This trial-by-sourcing will only accelerate as the press explores military records and interviews Bergdahl’s troop-mates looking for the evidence.

The press has every right, of course, to investigate the story and air its findings. Hell, it has a responsibility to cover Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and its fallout. But whatever Bergdahl’s alleged transgressions, his guilt or innocence should be determined by the military, not the media.

Bergdahl also deserves something better than being treated as a political pawn by the Republicans who have brought the full weight of their tongues down on President Barack Obama. Senior Republicans have cited the president’s failure to give Congress the 30-day notice required by law before transferring Gitmo prisoners, objecting to the lopsided terms of the exchange. They are calling for congressional hearings to investigate the deal. “Republican strategists” have even worked as go-betweens, pairing former members of Bergdahl’s platoon with Times reporters (which the paper acknowledges in its reporting). Again, the Republicans have every right to make Obama’s life miserable. Hell, it’s their duty!

The Army obviously has at its fingertips a great dossier with which Bergdahl could be exonerated or convicted of charges. Anonymous government sources can be seen crawling - like riotous weevils - all over the Bergdahl coverage, dispensing sotto voce details about his disappearance, his imprisonment, and his release. It’s a trial outside of court, with editors acting like judges to decide what evidence can be submitted, and readers playing the jury.

If Bergdahl did desert his unit, he can claim plenty of company. About 50,000 U.S. servicemen deserted their posts during World War Two, as did 100,000 British troops. In 1971 alone, 33,094 soldiers deserted the Army as the Vietnam War raged, and 8,000 servicemen deserted between the start of the second Iraq War and mid-2005.

Your average U.S. deserter picks a destination that promises political protection, such as Canada during the Vietnam War, or offers cultural camouflage, as various European countries did during World War Two. According to “The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II” by Charles Glass, battlefront troopers have traditionally sympathized with deserters out of identification with the deserters’ fear and confusion. In the Catch-22 sense of the word, it takes courage to be that kind of coward.

Desertion in the Pacific theater of World War Two was practically non-existent, Glass writes, compared to European battlefields - mainly because there were so few hospitable venues for a soldier who broke rank. Leave your post on Iwo Jima, and you’d likely walk straight into a bullet or into a nasty confinement, as Bergdahl appears to have done in Afghanistan. Bergdahl must have known desertion would be a quick trip to hell.

The military doesn’t put much effort into tracking deserters down these days. If detained by civilian authorities and identified as military fugitives, a deserter may suffer a slap on the wrist. But the sympathy and understanding we extend to deserters traditionally dissolves when the deserter stands accused of betraying his fellow soldiers or his country, as Bergdahl is.

You could argue that a fair court-martial, one that reviews all the facts in the Bergdahl case, would further traumatize an already wounded soul to no good end. But by sweeping Bergdahl’s desertion case under the rug and forgiving his conduct with a he‘s-already-done-his-time shrug, the Army has denied him the chance to clear - or at least clarify - his name.

Bergdahl deserves his day in court to silence the accusations that will otherwise dog him for the rest of his life. If he’s guilty, let him pay his debt and go on with his life. (Jack Shafer)

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