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.