Many things, on many levels, disturb me about the latest President Obama disaster of releasing 5 terrorists for a US soldier held in captivity. This situation contains so many threads we’ll probably be trying to untangle this massive web of lies, truth and partisan spin for years and future historians will certainly have plenty of information to sift through to put a stamp of judgment on President Obama’s decision to make this trade. One thread I’m going to attempt to untangle (and feel free to toss in your opinions in the comments) is the choices open to Bowe Bergdahl. None of us will ever be able to ascertain for certain what he thought or what he believed and the investigation, the accumulation of facts that come forward about his actions before, during and after his leaving his base in Afghanistan, and how we line these up will lead each of us to form an opinion in the matter.
Most of us are people of beliefs, opinions, feelings, desires and no man can ever be totally objective and free from some degree of bias, because we can’t separate our thinking into tidy little separate compartments. Sadly, from watching these sorts of national crises of “conscience” play out over the years, the political strategists have trained Americans to rely on poll numbers and influencing feelings to sway “public opinion” and thus allow the politicians to pursue their agendas without much oversight from “we the people”.
Bowe Bergdahl was a young man who voluntarily decided to enlist in the US Army. Of course, I can relate to that, because as a young woman I did the same thing, in perhaps a very similar naive way. No matter how carefully you research the military before raising your right hand and swearing an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”, the reality turns out very different from your preconceived notions.
The single most important lesson military service teaches you is that there are other things more important than yourself (selfless service). You are part of a team tasked with a mission and in combat the very lives of your fellow soldiers depend on TRUST – lives depend on this and accomplishing the mission depends on it (loyalty and trust).
When soldiers swear that oath, they agree to follow lawful orders and to work toward that big picture mission “defending the Constitution”. How that big mission trickles down to the individual soldier in our Republic is a combination of civilian political decision-making with the President having a great deal of latitude in execution of military missions and Congress with the prescribed role of declaring war, oversight of military actions and fiduciary responsibilities (they control the purse strings). Now, how the little missions get passed on down through the ranks has evolved in our military since General George Washington first took command of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775. From that day forward the military rules and traditions evolved and today Army soldiers operate under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and we agree to uphold Army Values, to live by the Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos.
Often times what you “feel” differs from what the people above you in rank order you to do and believe me, being a private in the US Army is a lesson in forbearance and self-restraint, because you’re at the bottom of the power structure and everything rolls downhill. That means you often feel like you’re being run around in circles, because you don’t know what the big picture parts of the mission are and as the little parts get tasked on down the chain of command, both good and bad decisions are made. It’s a complex organization and lots of hands are required to achieve the big picture mission. You follow your orders, unless the order is unlawful.
Based on the emails that Bowe Bergdahl’s parents reportedly shared with the frequently referenced 2012 Rolling Stone magazine article (hardly a hardcore right-wing source). Bowe Bergdahl had many negative feelings about his chain of command, his teammates and the overall mission in Afghanistan. At a later date, that will likely be a blog post to tackle – American foreign policy failures.
I can sympathize having been a private in the US Army and having grave misgivings about our military mission in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially since President Obama took office, but truthfully even for most of the Bush presidency too. From the very biggest picture level on down to the execution on the ground, I have disagreed with everything from nation-building on down to rules of engagement. I have nothing but contempt for military strategy reliant on lame slogans, rather than a clear strategic vision for America, both short-term and long-term. It looks to me like Bowe Bergdahl drank the “hearts and minds” three cups of tea mission. I disagreed with it then and I disagree with it now. COIN is not a strategy – it’s a tactic, in my opinion and I’ve felt all along it should be just a part of our military toolkit, not the complete doctrine in the Army. Yes, we’ve all listened “shock and awe” and “it will be a cake walk” on to the “winning the hearts and minds”, which the media regurgitate like trained parrots. Right now, the press and the politicians hit us with “we never leave one of our own on the battlefield” type slogans.
Most in the media have no clue about anything having to do with military matters. No one in the President’s inner-circle of trusted advisers knows anything about military matters (and they suck at managing their PR big time too). From watching this unfolding circus, sadly way too many of the retired military pundits and commentators on which the media and public rely to translate military matters into civilian language are partisan political hacks. Sadly, I’ve thought most of our top brass are political hacks for a long, long time. When the “war on terror” began and the Bush administration began briefing these retired officers and sending them out to be “military analysts” for the media, it’s pretty easy to determine where these officers’ political loyalties lie and it’s not with telling the truth.
So, now back to Bowe Bergdahl, the Private First Class, arriving in Afghanistan in March of 2009 and on June 30, 2009 he walked away from his base. I love my Sun Tzu, while our military is more attuned to Clausewitz and Jomini. I love reading about military strategy and military history, so naturally I have lots of opinions. Bowe Bergdahl seems to have formed lots of opinions too. And that is what the point of this post is. No matter how the media and politicians or his supporters or the folks for the war or against the war try to spin it – at the heart of the matter is Bowe Bergdahl, whom I can sympathize with in many ways, as a naive young man, “wanting to help the Afghan people” according to his father. I am always trying to “help people” too. I can even sympathize with his parents and even his father trying to talk to the Taliban, trying to get his son released. The crux of the matter and what this will boil down to – unlike Bowe’s father, mine lived by a simple code of honor that he drilled into our heads, “If you give your word, you keep it!” Bowe’s father, a religious man, told his son, according to that Rolling Stone interview, “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!” Bowe gave his word and didn’t keep it, nor did he discuss his change of conscience with his chain of command. He walked away in a war zone for an as yet to be determined personal mission.
Here’re the simple facts. Bowe Bergdahl had other choices. It was not a matter of he had no other course of action to pursue if he felt, as a matter of conscience he couldn’t do this. Like everything in the military, conscientious objector status is covered in UCMJ too. Did Bowe Bergdahl ever talk to anyone in his chain of command about his misgivings about the war? Did he attempt to seek conscientious objector status or even try to get out of the Army? The reporting indicated he tried to join the French Foreign Legion, wanting to be a mercenary, so fighting didn’t seem to be morally reprehensible to him then. He joined the Army and was reported to have earned the nickname SF, short for Special Forces, because of his fascination with COIN. How he was planning to help the Afghan people matters and we may never get that answer from him. I would love to hear his father explain in what ways he believes Bowe intended to help the Afghan people. How was he going to help them, this young man fascinated with being a mercenary and survivalist skills? To me, I’m trying to wrap my mind around his father’s views in this video, where he at length talks about how he feels the mission in Afghanistan was wrong, but I can’t make heads or tails out of how he believes his son intended to help the Afghan people.
So, away from the politics, there are honorable and dishonorable ways to “obey your conscience” and sorry, walking away from your base is not one of them. Not being a JAG lawyer, I don’t know if Bowe Bergdahl’s convictions would have met the threshold for conscientious objector status. This website About.com on this issue it states: “You can’t pick and choose which war you object to. By law, a conscientious objector is one who is opposed to participation in all wars. The person’s opposition must be based on religious belief and training, and it must be deeply held.” My husband had a soldier who found God on the way to the Gulf War and he was still in the company when they returned, albeit on his way out. I haven’t consulted Gladius on this matter yet, but like everything else in the Army, there are various types of actions commanders have at their disposal to deal with a soldier and his/her conscience in a war zone – Bowe Bergdahl decided to skip all that.
This isn’t about the merits of the US mission in Afghanistan or the partisan politics, this is about one soldier who swore an oath and the choices he voluntarily made. And when the political left tries to turn this into an indictment of the policy in Afghanistan – what matters here is that the UCMJ applies to every soldier and that’s why so many soldiers are demanding he be held accountable for his actions. We might sympathize with his feelings, but we can’t lose sight that we are a nation of laws, not men. That law is the Constitution of the United States of America and if keeping your word no longer matters, our Republic will crumble. Don’t once again buy into the crap about the polls of how the American people feel or the partisan spin – that doesn’t matter!!! We are a nation of laws, not of what people feel this week based on the latest poll numbers!