Why Bergdahl matters

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Course Director, Joint Strategic Leadership, Air War College
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked away from his post while serving in Afghanistan in 2009, triggering a chain of events that continue to play out even today. Bergdahl's decision to walk away was a defining event in his life. Now, more than five years on, another defining event of greater consequence presents itself to senior military leaders and our president. Inconvenient, inopportune timing and at odds with past messaging, the fact is, what military leaders do now, under presidential pressure, real or perceived, matters more than events leading to this point.

Beyond prisoner swaps, Rose Garden announcements, media spin, and political agendas, the Bergdahl case concerns the honor of our nation, the ethics of the military profession and the personal character of military leaders. Moreover, how the military categorizes Bergdahl's service is significant to anyone, past and present, who has worn a military uniform in the service of this nation.

There are some who say Bergdahl has suffered enough, while others assert that Bergdahl was only following his conscience. Neither point of view is germane with regard to Bergdahl's guilt or innocence as a deserter. Indeed, he may have suffered, but his captivity and possible mistreatment was a direct result of his own actions. He was not captured; he walked away. If our nation expects its warriors to do their duty, then our nation must act against those who fail to meet their obligations through cowardice, desertion or treason.

The significance of this decision

If oaths matter: When a person enters the military they take an oath. The oath of enlistment requires one to, "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... and ... obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice." When Bergdahl walked off his post, he violated his oath to this nation and must be judged in accordance to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a system that holds all who serve accountable for their actions. Not punishing Bergdahl, when there is evidence requiring leaders to do so, is in itself, a violation of the code.  

If precedent matters: Good order and discipline are the bedrock of military service. Now that Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl's investigation is complete, Gen. Mark Milley, commander of the Army's U.S. Forces Command, must decide the way forward. Milley has some latitude with regard to the type of proceedings; however, there is no option, within his powers as the court-martial convening authority, to ignore the evidence. This is a weighty decision, but making tough calls while under pressure is the very essence of leadership. This case and how it is adjudicated becomes both precedent and example for future deserters.

If examples matter: Due to a spate of questionable behavior, ethical lapses and sexual assault cases, senior military leaders have initiated campaigns, within all branches of service, that re-emphasize core values and the ethos required in the profession of arms. Ethics espoused become little more than talking points if senior leaders personally fail to demonstrate a proper personal example. If military leaders do not hold Bergdahl accountable, they will harm their own moral authority; troops pay more attention to what their leaders do than to what their leaders say. 
Ultimately, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's character is on trial, as is the character of senior military leaders such as Milley and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Albeit, not summoned before a court-martial proceeding, the generals' jury is even harsher. These men of power and responsibility will be judged by history, the troops and the American people. Oaths and decisions have consequences. The significance of Bergdahl's decision to walk away from his post, in the face of the enemy, pales when compared to the magnitude of the decisions now required of his generals.

"The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."