How soldiers like Bowe Bergdahl can wind up hating good commanders
By WESLEY MORGAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 9, 2016
It's an axiom among military leaders: command is not a popularity contest. That folk wisdom has given a measure of comfort to many officers whose soldiers resent them for sending them into harm's way -- and frustrated many more soldiers convinced that their commander really does not have their best interests at heart.
What no commander expects is for a junior soldier, when he does dislike his commander, to walk off into enemy territory. But that was what Bowe Bergdahl did -- and, by his own account, excerpted at length in the latest episode of the hit podcast "Serial," that was why he did it.
The commander of Bergdahl's unit -- then-Lt. Col. Clint Baker, the Texan graduate of West Point who led the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment -- was an "out-of-control" menace, Bergdahl told filmmaker Mark Boal in one of the interviews the podcast excerpted. "I wouldn't put it past him to purposely put me and my platoon-mates in harm's way just because he has a personal grudge against us" or for other nefarious reasons hidden from junior soldiers.
By walking across Taliban territory to another base, Bergdahl claims, he hoped to cause an emergency which would then allow him to bring Baker's leadership failures to the attention of a general.
But a soldier who served in 1st Battalion as a lieutenant, Nate Bethea, told Checkpoint in an interview that Bergdahl's assessment of their battalion commander could hardly have been farther from the mark. "Colonel Baker got that battalion because he was a good officer," Bethea said. "He's a genuinely, sincerely nice person who actually liked being out there doing operations with his soldiers and sharing their risk."
Craig Whiteside, a retired lieutenant colonel who was with 1st Battalion on its previous deployment, gave an even more glowing endorsement of Baker, his former West Point classmate.
"It's true that the Army sometimes puts people in command who don't deserve to be there, but the Army did not make a mistake in selecting Clint Baker to be a battalion commander, and I say that as the guy who was in competition with him to command that battalion and lost out," Whiteside said in an interview. "I'd go work for Clint right now. He's just an absolutely fantastic officer, solid-headed, with no ego, to a rare degree. I've never seen anyone work harder to dedicate their life to being a good Army officer."
So how could one disgruntled soldier reach such a radically different conclusion about a lieutenant colonel he saw only occasionally?
To some extent, it's a built-in feature of how a military units works, especially in combat, several veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan of different ranks said in interviews. Commanders give orders; junior soldiers blame the commanders for anything bad or frustrating that happens as a result of those orders, while soldiers higher up the food chain get a better view of commanders' motives.
"A soldier will point the finger at whoever comes up with mission orders, and that's the company or battalion commander," one former infantry platoon leader with two deployments to eastern Afghanistan, Ray McPadden, said.
During a deployment in the violent Korengal valley, McPadden served under a notoriously unpopular commander. A lieutenant at the time, McPadden understood his soldiers' anger and sometimes shared it, but in retrospect thinks it was unfair. "My commander seemed like the bad guy by virtue of the situation, not because he didn't care about his dudes," McPadden explained. "It would be easy to present a viewpoint that he was in la la land and was ready to send us out to die and didn't care about us, but the situation was more complex than that."
Ben Richards, a retired Army major who as a cavalry commander during the Iraq "surge" often dealt with complaints his soldiers directed toward him or subordinate officers, told Checkpoint that the problem was common and often exacerbated in counterinsurgency operations where soldiers have a hard time understanding their mission.
"By design, junior guys see a much smaller piece of the picture," Richards said. "The least popular commander can be the most effective and the most popular the least effective. I'd get complaints from soldiers about an officer saying, 'He's putting us in danger, he's taking too much risk,' but from my perspective he was doing exactly what he needed to be doing and what I wanted him to do."
Sometimes, time and reflection -- and promotion to leadership positions -- can bring soldiers around on commanders they despised at the time.
At the darkest point of his Iraq deployment, Richards regularly spotted graffiti in latrines and guard towers with a mutinous tone, a reaction to his decision to work with some Iraqi insurgents against other ones: scrawls of "Captain Richards is a Haji Lover," a rough drawing of an armored vehicle bearing Richards's call sign being blown up.
Years later, Richards received a Facebook message from a former platoon sergeant who had been angry about Richards's decisions at the time. "I know there was some mutiny in the ranks," the soldier, who had since joined a specialized unit called the Asymmetric Warfare Group, wrote in the message. "The more I have learned in AWG, the more I learned that you had it right on Baquba. Your strategy was spot on. . . . I just thought you should know that."
Bergdahl, of course, didn't have a cathartic post-deployment change of heart about Clint Baker -- 1st Battalion's tour had barely begun when Bergdahl's actions derailed it.
Besides the normal dynamic of soldiers' frustration with their commanders, Bergdahl's unusual personality and tendency to hold people he encountered to unattainable standards probably drove his decision to walk off base. That's what then-Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who led an investigation into the Bergdahl affair, told a preliminary hearing of an Army court, or Article 32 hearing, last fall.
Dahl, whose investigative team included an infantry platoon sergeant, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist, sought to understand Bergdahl's frame of mind as thoroughly as he could, spending two days talking to the returned prisoner so extensively that the transcript of their conversation ran 371 pages.
"He has very high standards and a very idealistic view of people," Dahl testified, referring to Bergdahl. "When he describes his experience in basic training, everyone was a disappointment" except for one drill sergeant, a pattern that continued as he went to infantry training and joined 1st Battalion in Alaska. "I asked him, 'Wasn't there anything or anyone that measured up?' And he said no."
In Paktika, Dahl said at the Article 32 hearing, the focus of Bergdahl's disappointment and ire became Baker. Bergdahl was horrified with a harsh remark Baker made when Bergdahl's platoon came back from their first really dangerous mission, although other soldiers shrugged the remark off.
After Baker angrily reprimanded some soldiers at an observation post for failing to wear all their protective gear, Bergdahl was furious. As Dahl understood it, Bergdahl's concern was that when Baker disciplined the soldiers, the rocks the colonel was kicking in the dirt to demonstrate his ire were really Afghan graves -- which could have badly offended any local resident who witnessed the incident. (Dahl wasn't "able to corroborate" that the rocks were graves, although Bethea told Checkpoint that he did remember there being a graveyard near the observation post in question.)
Asked why he didn't bring his concerns about Baker to his team leader, squad leader, platoon leader, or company commander, Bergdahl told Dahl that "all of them were, you know, pretty much unfit to lead and didn't have the right perspective; and [that] they were only in it for the money or they were only in it for the rank or they were only going to protect themselves."
It's possible that Bergdahl saw leadership problems in his unit at a very low level, former 1st Battalion officer Bethea acknowledged. But Bethea dismissed out of hand the notion, apparently central to Bergdahl's motive in abandoning his platoon, that Baker either did not exercise due care in exposing his men to risk or was insensitive to local people's customs and concerns.
"Colonel Baker was the first field-grade commander I ever met who actually really seemed to get counterinsurgency and understand how to work with local civilians and relate to them," Bethea said. "To have him portrayed as some kind of William Calley-he would just stop and chat with Afghan civilians as he went about his business."