Perhaps the president’s handling of the Bergdahl-Taliban swap will be the one action that will turn the tide, pushing even his most stalwart supporters to become fed up. I say this based upon a phone call my wife received last night from a relative, one of those perennial liberals who up to now has supported virtually every Obama policy and act. True, this is hardly a scientific poll or sampling. But we were stunned to hear this relative tell us how angry she was with the president. The deal, she said, was unconscionable and dangerous.
There is legitimate debate to be had about whether or not the administration should have moved to get Bowe Bergdahl back. Charles Krauthammer, in his much discussed column, argued in favor of Bergdahl being freed and then tried by the military. At NRO, Andy McCarthy wrote a strong critique of Krauthammer’s argument, arguing that in the midst of a war that is not yet over, giving five top jihadists at Gitmo for one possible deserter is more than counter-productive. Moreover, it is quite possible he will never be court-martialed. Michelle Malkin reminds us that ten years ago this very month, a Muslim Marine deserted and although he was supposed to be court-martialed, a trial never took place. This particular soldier was known to be supporting jihadists and regularly listened to their propaganda tapes.
As yet, we do not have all the facts about Bergdahl’s desertion. Was he simply unbalanced and naïve? Was he an actual sympathizer seeking the Taliban out? Or was his conversion to Islam and documented training with Taliban members done to save his life and prevent them from killing him? Or did it arise from a case of Stockholm syndrome?
Despite administration denials, especially Susan Rice’s now famous claim last Sunday that he served with “honor and distinction,” we know that the desertion took place. And there is good reason why the military treats deserters harshly. An armed force cannot survive, and ensure that dangerous missions are carried out and that discipline is maintained, if any soldier can decide at any time that he cannot fight and has to walk away.
It is also an insult to those who go into battle knowing that they may never come back. We were reminded of that when we paused to honor the sacrifice and heroism of those who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, where thousands were cut down, especially in the first group who left the boats and faced a barrage of German fire without any defenses to protect them.
The filmmaker Ron Maxwell reminds us in a Facebook post that during our Civil War in the extremely cold winter of 1862-1863, Stonewall Jackson’s aide-de-camp reported that three soldiers from the Stonewall Brigade had deserted. He hoped that because of their age and that they had fought honorably with the unit for two years, they would be spared. Jackson replied that it was a plea he could not accept. In a scene from his movie Gods and Generals, Maxwell writes what he thinks is likely Jackson said when he denied this appeal. “Desertion is not a solitary crime,” Stonewall Jackson tells his aide-de-camp. “It is a crime against the tens of thousands of veterans who are huddled together in the harsh cold of this winter.” And so the deserters are tried in a court-martial and then shot.
In World War II, Private Eddie Slovik was sentenced to death by firing squad for desertion. Many now believe he was unfairly singled out as an example. Out of the 50,000 deserters in the war, many of whom received long sentences of jail time at hard labor, he was the only soldier executed. As WW II veteran Nick Gozik, who observed his execution by firing squad, has noted, Slovik was a brave man. He was given two chances to rip up his letter of intent to desert by officers, and rejected them. Slovik believed he was not constitutionally fit to engage in warfare, and he went to his death bravely without even flinching. But his execution — fair or not — indicates how seriously the U.S. Army dealt with deserters in World War II.
Some years ago, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, historian Michael Oren, wrote a prescient article about whether it is right to honor those who deserted in past wars, as had been the case when the British government erected an actual monument to those who had been shot for desertion in WW I, and then retroactively pardoned them. Oren worries that excuses for desertion might spread, and that Europe’s views “are symptoms of European attitudes toward not just World War I soldiers but toward all soldiers, even those who fight in just causes. And, if that is true, one might well ask: Can a society that valorizes its deserters long survive?” Oren believes that an attitude is developing that, since many now believe all wars are immoral, deserters can be viewed as honorable. Would, he asks, Americans honor a soldier who deserted from the Union Army when its task became liberating slaves? Indeed, he notes that the Union Army actually had far more deserters than did the Confederacy. Oren writes:
For some Europeans, the aversion to military force is insufficient; they want Americans to lay down their arms as well. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled U.S. Army Specialist Andre Shepherd, a deserter living in Germany. Shepherd, with assistance from German peace activists, is seeking to stay in the country under an EU directive offering asylum to soldiers who refuse to fight in illegal wars. The German government has been paying for Shepherd’s room and board. “It’s just amazing here,” he told the Journal.
Today, the American left wing deals with the issue of Bergdahl’s desertion in two ways. The first is the growing chorus of those who blame his own unit for lax security, and imply that his fellow soldiers themselves were an undisciplined and carefree bunch. This is the editorial position of the New York Times, whose editors write that “the army’s lack of security and discipline was as much to blame for the disappearance, given the sergeant’s history.” The editors believe that Bergdahl is simply “a free-spirited man” who is unfairly being demonized by those who call him a “turncoat.”
What Michael Oren called “the eagerness to immortalize deserters” has already been taken up by some on the left, who justify Oren’s fear that some Americans might follow the European attitude. This time, it comes from The Nation magazine, the flagship publication of the American left. Writer Richard Kreitner’s article is titled “The Honorable History of War Deserters.”