What the hell is going on?
When I heard that confessed Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl will not get any prison time, you could have knocked me over with a DD-214. (I can’t bring myself to refer to him as Sergeant Bergdahl — he’s about as qualified by competence and character to be an NCO as I am to be Archbishop of Canterbury.) What the ever-loving, olive-drab hell is going on?
The judge in this case, Army Colonel Jeffery R. Nance, ruled Friday that Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty October 16 to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, will receive a dishonorable discharge. He was also reduced in rank to private and will be required to pay $1,000 a month from his salary over the next 10 months. (This part is confusing. If Bergdahl is to be discharged from the Army, what salary is the judge talking about?)
The desertion charge carried the potential of a life sentence. As it is, Bergdahl will spend less time behind bars than Martha Stewart did. And she didn’t get anybody shot coming after her.
Bergdahl’s attorneys say they will appeal the dishonorable discharge, which means that for the time being Bergdahl remains in the Army. This is different from saying that Bergdahl remains a soldier. It’s pretty clear by now that he never was one. One of the many questions this embarrassing case will leave in its wake is why a wingnut like Bergdahl was recruited into the Army in the first place.
A dishonorable discharge is serious business. It’s the equivalent of a felony conviction. In many states this means Bergdahl would lose various of his civil rights, including the right to vote, own firearms, or hold a government job. His civilian employment possibilities are bleak. Though we can be sure that those who were seriously wounded trying to find the missing Private First Class Bergdahl after he did a runner will not cry for him.
Reaction to the lenient sentence came quickly. President Trump tweeted that it was “a disgrace,” which it was. But Trump may be partly, perhaps even largely, responsible for the leniency because of his popping off about Bergdahl being a traitor who should be executed. It’s called command influence (you can see our Jed Babbin’s fine pre-sentence analysis here), and Trump is at the top of Bergdahl’s chain of command. Bergdahl’s chief defense attorney, Eugene Fidell, made the most of this.
“President Trump’s unprincipled effort to stoke a lynch-mob atmosphere while seeking our nation’s highest office has cast a dark cloud over the case,” Fidell said. “Every American should be offended by this assault on the fair administration of justice and disdain for basic constitutional rights.”
Okay, Okay. Defense attorneys are paid to exaggerate and pound the table. But he has a point. Senior military officers, which Trump is by virtue of being president, cannot be seen as influencing military courts to come to a certain decision or exact a certain punishment. Nance ruled earlier on that he would view Trump’s comments as mitigating evidence. Who knows what the sentence might have been had Trump kept mum.
By now most know Bergdahl’s dreary story. He walked away from his post in eastern Afghanistan in June of 2009, later issuing the lame excuse that he was going to a larger base in hopes of getting an audience with a senior officer to complain about problems in his unit. Anyone who has served knows this is not the way to make complaints in the military. And that solving unit problems is well above the private first class pay grade. Bergdahl was hardly loose any time before the Taliban scooped him up and held him prisoner for almost five years, treating him harshly.
Bergdahl was repatriated in 2014 when our then tiny president orchestrated about the worst trade since Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. Five hardened jihadis returned to the fight in return for Bergdahl. Even though there was every evidence that Bergdahl has simply walked off his post, Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice said we made the swap because Bergdahl had “served his country with honor and distinction,” Never has the bar for honor and distinction been set so low.
The wheels of military justice, like that of court systems elsewhere, grind slowly. It took three more years, with Bergdahl doing administrative skut work stateside and still wearing the three stripes he never earned, to reach today’s sentence, which leaves Bergdahl still wearing the uniform he disgraced.
This is an outcome it would be very hard to find anyone pleased with. But it isn’t the end of the story, what with the defense appealing the discharge, a couple of levels of Army review left, and congressional hearings threatened. For right now we’re sitting on disgrace, and it’s hard to see how justice is ultimately served in this dark page in American military and political history.