It won’t be hard for military lawyers to argue that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl violated military regulations when he slipped out of a remote outpost in Afghanistan in 2009 and became a Taliban prisoner for five years.
They would have a tougher time explaining why it’s worthwhile to prosecute a soldier the Army recruited despite significant concerns about his psychological state and who endured years of torture and privation during his captivity. As a general matter, the American military has good reason to punish service members who desert. However, it should exercise discretion in extraordinary cases. Sergeant Bergdahl’s is certainly one… trying him for desertion and misbehaving before the enemy — for allegedly engaging in misconduct that endangered his unit — stands to accomplish little at this point. A conviction would most likely deprive a traumatized veteran of benefits, including medical care, which he will probably need for years. A dishonorable discharge would make it harder to rebuild his life as a civilian.
Well, boo hoo. Tell that to another deserter, Private Eddie Slovik:
Private Eddie Slovik was a draftee. Originally classified 4-F because of a prison record (grand theft auto), he was bumped up to a 1-A classification when draft standards were lowered to meet growing personnel needs. In January 1944, he was trained to be a rifleman, which was not to his liking, as he hated guns.
In August of the same year, Slovik was shipped to France to fight with the 28th Infantry Division, which had already suffered massive casualties in the fighting there and in Germany. Slovik was a replacement, a class of soldier not particular respected by officers. As he and a companion were on the way to the front lines, they became lost in the chaos of battle, only to stumble upon a Canadian unit that took them in.
Slovik stayed on with the Canadians until October 5, when they turned him and his buddy over to the American military police, who reunited them with the 28th Division, now in Elsenborn, Belgium. No charges were brought; replacements getting lost early on in their tours of duty were not unusual. But exactly one day after Slovik returned to his unit, he claimed he was “too scared and too nervous” to be a rifleman and threatened to run away if forced into combat. His admission was ignored-and Slovik took off. One day after that he returned, and Slovik signed a confession of desertion, claiming he would run away again if forced to fight, and submitted it to an officer of the 28th. The officer advised Slovik to take the confession back, as the consequences would be serious. Slovik refused, and he was confined to the stockade.
The 28th Division had seen many cases of soldiers wounding themselves or deserting in the hopes of a prison sentence that would at least protect them from the perils of combat. So a legal officer of the 28th offered Slovik a deal: Dive into combat immediately and avoid the court-martial. Slovik refused. He was tried on November 11 for desertion and was convicted in less than two hours. The nine-officer court-martial panel passed a unanimous sentence: execution-“to be shot to death with musketry.”
Slovik was executed by firing squad in January 1945. “None of the rifleman so much as flinched, believing Slovik had gotten what he deserved.” But that was back in the day when the U.S. Army’s primary task was to win wars, not to act as a baby-sitter for unfit or psychologically damaged soldiers.