Very shortly – perhaps this week, the U.S. Army will sentence Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for deserting his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. It will be interesting to see what Colonel Jeffrey Nance does with handing out punishment. He’s in a difficult position even though Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to the charge. Guilt is not the issue. What is creating the problem for the military justice system are the words of our commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump.
On the campaign trail a year ago, Trump said that Bergdahl was a traitor and should be shot. Just a few days ago, commenting on the trial, Trump said he hadn’t changed his mind on what he thought of Bergdahl and what should happen to him. These ill-tempered remarks have put the sentencing judge between a rock and a hard place. Did Trump’s words place a requirement for a very stiff sentence? After all, the judge works for the president and is part of the chain of command. Civilian authority over the military is something all Americans have accepted since the beginning of the Republic.
Any way you look at it, Sgt. Bergdahl is a pathetic character. His attempt to make contact with the Taliban on his own while in the field made him a captive for five years. He was tortured by his captors and suffered great personal harm. Some of his unit mates were wounded as they searched for him in the belief that he had been captured. The final solution brokered by the Obama administration wherein Bergdahl was released in a swap of 5 Taliban captives seemed disproportionate in the extreme.
But Trump’s comments may have sabotaged any reasonable outcome to Bergdahl’s fate. Desertion in wartime is a serious charge. There should be very severe consequences for what Bergdahl did. But how will the judge rule? Given how president Trump has publicly stoked the anger toward Sgt. Bergdahl, it is pretty clear that there won’t be a sentence that will satisfy most people. Bergdahl’s life is already ruined by his own actions. My view is that Judge Nance should dismiss the case as tainted by the incendiary words of a commander in chief who seems to ignore the consequence of what he says. Bergdahl should get a general discharge and be released from the military with time served.
We are once again witnessing the disintegration of a European country as Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain flirts with secession. The disaffection has seethed for some time in the northeastern section of the country as Catalans have viewed the central government in Madrid with increasing anger. Catalonia is a prosperous region of Spain and provides the country with about 20 percent of its GDP. Residents in cities like Barcelona don’t like the idea that they must pay taxes to support less prosperous sections of Spain. They have always felt that the central government does not appreciate or respect Catalan culture. Part of this stems from the history of the region which was once an independent kingdom. There is a long history here and memories keep it alive. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the forces of General Franco devastated Catalonia which had been a republican enclave against fascism. For a long time under Franco, Catalan culture was repressed and people were not allowed to speak their unique language. While things have improved in the last several decades a large percentage (but not a majority) of Catalans want independence.
I visited Barcelona a couple of years ago and saw a vibrant economy and a population of prosperous and healthy people. Beautiful parks were everywhere. The pedestrian walkway called Las Ramblas allows one to walk from the busy harbor along a shaded mid-way with shops and restaurants. The magnficant cathedral created by architect Antoni Gaudi — the Sagrada Familia dominates the skyline. The city is a place of great beauty.
Now all that would seem to be at risk as a group of radicals have pushed the idea of independence to almost the point of no return. After a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish central government and the European Union, Catalans seem poised to take the final step toward dissolving their connection to the rest of the country.
Should Catalonia try and secede, they will face a central government determined not to let that happen. There have already been street demonstrations met by force with some injuries. Violence will only grow if reasonable people do not put the brakes on this movement. Even if Catalonia could pull off an exit from Spain, where would it leave them? They would be out of the European Union and could not even apply to get in as a sovereign nation because Spain would veto their entry. All of their trade agreements would have to be renegotiated. The economy would enter a downward spiral as jobs would be lost caused by international businesses relocating out of Catalonia. It would be a disaster.
There are historical precedents to predict just how badly a secession of this type will affect Catalonia. When Quebec made noises of leaving Canada in the 1970’s many businesses left their headquarters in Montreal moving to other Canadian cities. Jobs were lost. That province has not yet fully recovered from it. When Yugoslavia imploded as various cultural groups in that federation in the 1980s decided to go it alone, to pursue their own independence, it led to economic stagnation and eventually a bloody civil war. There’s been little recovery there. The Slovak region of the former Czechoslovakia has not done as well as its former partner since the break-up of the country into two separate nations 20 years ago.
I could add more examples. But the long and short of it is that if Catalonia doesn’t compromise on its demands for independence, there will not be a good ending to this problem. And it should not have come to this.