To the Rear March

The narrative in the Bowe Bergdahl saga has changed from heroism to one of compassion, skipping over everything in between. Time Magazine, that reliable bellweather of establishment media opinion, has jumped straight to the question of whether or not Bergdahl should be formally charged with desertion. In writer Mark Thompson’s narrative the accusations seem more or less informally admitted, though of course nothing has been proved.


As Army veterans who served with Bowe Bergdahl continued to denounce what they described as desertion — an act that reportedly led to the death of some of the GIs who tried to find him after his disappearance in Afghanistan — senior military hands took a more measured approach to his ultimate fate at the hands of military justice….

“I think he abandoned his post while the other four soldiers were asleep,” Greg Leatherman, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, tells TIME. “He was a loner, he didn’t like to share much with anyone. Read the Koran quite a bit, which I respected. I saw it as him trying to be a better soldier, learning more about the people we were going to work with. Turns out he was preparing.”

Attentive readers will notice there’s is a missing chunk in this movie as if nobody wants to talk about how the heroic scenario was set up in the first place. Be that as it may, the new narrative fast forwards to what happens next to Bergdahl. The consensus presented is that if the charges of desertion are substantiated then he should be lightly punished, inasmuch as he has suffered enough. John Keane, who retired as a four-star general, and the Army’s second-ranking officer, in 2003 is quoted by TIME as saying:

“If he indeed left his post without authority, and there are no extenuating circumstances, then he must be held accountable for his actions … charged, tried and separated [from the Army] without prison time.”

Eugene Fidell, a lecturer on military law at the Yale Law School takes a similar view. He “doubts the case will get that far, even if warranted”.


“It’s utterly discretionary as a matter of clemency, a matter of judgment, and indeed even as a matter of politics. The authorities can decide this is not a case that they want to do anything about,” he says.

“Let’s assume that the facts demonstrate that he left with an intent to remain away permanently — that is desertion,” Fidell says. “Will the cognizant general officer decide, ‘Look, this guy spent five years [as a prisoner] and we’re just not going to put him through the wringer again?’ No prosecution is mandated by the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” he adds.

The sole contrary voice is that of retired Colonel Ralph Peters, who not only feel that Bergdahl has been used to send the wrong message but thinks the real focus of the story should be on the White House.

“This is just so grotesque,” argues retired Army officer and author Ralph Peters. … He says part of the anger over Bergdahl’s release rests at the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Check out the fury — fury — of his fellow soldiers and veterans,” Peters says. “The big mistake was for the President and his gang to imply that Bergdahl is a hero. …What military people fear is a whitewash that will let him walk with an honorable discharge and full benefits. That would be an insult to every person who’s ever served honorably in uniform — giving [an alleged] deserter full lifetime benefits.”

The gist of Peters’ argument is that the military can’t incentivize desertion and denigrate those who’ve done their duty.  But that raises another question: who’s doing the incentivizing?


It would be a mistake to think that Bergdahl — assuming he in fact deserted his post — performed no service. Had he stayed with his unit no one would even have remembered his name. As it was he handed his commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, the unequaled opportunity to reach out to the Taliban by handing them a bargaining chip in the person of himself — a chip Obama promptly played against Congress. For were it not for Bergdahl, Obama would have lacked any pretext to spring five senior Taliban members, in despite of the process required by law. As it was the Taliban were simply whisked out of jail and sent to a heroes welcome in Qatar.  The reason given was exigency; the assertion that Obama had to save Bergdahl.

Wittingly or unwittingly he served as a pawn to advance the wishes of his commander in chief. Obama owes him one.

Whether Bergdahl will in fact be repaid for his accidental service to the administration remains to be seen. The narrative dreamed up by the president’s media people didn’t survive even 48 hours. The Guardian notes what Ralph Peters has already observed: many in the military community are angry — livid in fact — at what is being perceived as a travesty. The relatives of those died looking for Bergdahl are understandably upset. There are even petitions on the Internet demanding military justice. There are cries for heads to roll. This puts the commander in chief in an awkward spot, for ordinarily there is nothing he does half so readily as throw people under a bus.


If past behavior is any indication president Obama will now come forward to say he read about the accusations against Bergdahl in Time, the same as anybody else, and that he’s “madder than hell.”  Then he’ll find some scapegoat.

Or maybe for once, just once, he’ll stand at the lectern, man up and say: “yes I let the Taliban go because I WANTED TO LET THEM GO and I used this guy as an excuse.”

Bowe Bergdahl himself appears to be a rather helpless person suffering from personal issues. There is not much in him to hate, even assuming he were guilty. As Ralph Peters noted, much of the outrage generated by this is really the result of the idiotic messaging from the White House. Bowe and his bearded father seem almost tailor made to take the heat. Obama dumped the stolen goods on them and the duo happily showed it to cops.

Commanders use soldiers to send messages. And those messages change depending on the circumstances. In November, 1944 the US Army was encountering hard going against a still unbroken German Army. Morale — desertion in particular — had become a problem. Private Eddie Slovik left his unit and hid out among Canadian troops for six weeks. He was one of several men among the hundreds of thousands who found himself unable to continue. But his commanding officer sent him back to the front whereupon Slovik deserted again. This time he made a crucial mistake.

Slovik defied the system in writing.

“Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached an enlisted cook at a headquarters detachment, presenting him with a note which stated: I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. … AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.”  Faced with this bald refusal and facing a crisis that would culminate in the Battle of the Bulge the problem became: could they let him get away with it?


Slovik had to be tried by … staff officers from other U.S. Army divisions, because all combat officers … were fighting on the front lines. … the nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander, Major General Norman Cota. General Cota’s stated attitude was. “Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944, I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it—if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose—I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.” …

On 9 December, Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, desertion had become a systemic problem in France, and the surprise German offensive through the Ardennes began on 16 December with severe U.S. casualties, pocketing several battalions and straining the morale of the infantry to the greatest extent yet seen during the war.

Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on 23 December, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions. The sentence came as a shock to Slovik, who had expected a dishonorable discharge and a jail term (the latter of which he assumed would be commuted once the war was over), the same punishment he had seen meted out to other deserters from the division while he was confined to the stockade.

Eisenhower felt he had to send a message so Slovik was executed, “the only American soldier to be court-martialled and executed for desertion since the American Civil War.” It was a case of  pour encourager les autres.


In the matter of this latest scandal and even in the larger issue of the good — or bad — faith with which the war in Afghanistan has been prosecuted, Bowe Bergdahl is at best a co-defendant. He is probably less than that, simply an extra in a vast political game. The real defendant in this drama is Barack Obama. And as we all know, he is going to walk. Who gets to hold the bag? The floor is open for nominations.

Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.

Absence Of Malice
Children of Arbat
Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development (Neural Network Modeling and Connectionism)
Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality
Barack Obama’s Rules for Revolution: The Alinsky Model

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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