When soldiers walk off, speculation swoops in
In the 1970s, Vietnam veteran-turned-novelist Tim O’Brien created Pvt. Cacciato, an impulsive soldier who, one fine day, gathered up rations, water, maps and a compass and, as O’Brien mordantly put it, “left the war,” telling his buddies that he intended to walk all the way to Paris.
“Going After Cacciato,” O’Brien’s phantasmagorical novel about the Army’s search for the AWOL grunt and its harrowing culmination in, yes, the City of Light, was an extended meditation on courage and cowardice and one of the best American books about the war in Southeast Asia, or any war, for that matter.
Now Afghanistan has given us Bowe Bergdahl, who apparently thought he could walk to Pakistan in real life as easily as Cacciato walked to Paris in fantasy but instead wound up a prisoner of the Taliban for five years, until President Barack Obama swapped five top Taliban figures for him last week.
Politicians and pundits are struggling to impose their own self-serving narratives on this stranger-than-fiction character and his stranger-than-fiction tale.
Obama made a bit of a fool of himself by treating Bergdahl’s impending return as appropriate for Rose Garden celebration, complete with grateful parents, even though he knew, or easily should have known, that Bergdahl is hardly a hero.
That attempt to gin up an election-year feel-good story fell flat, as did national security adviser Susan Rice’s clueless depiction of Bergdahl’s Army career as one of “honor and distinction.”
White House efforts to glorify Bergdahl were matched by the right’s efforts to demonize him. He stands accused of desertion, which is indeed a very serious offense. Convicting him of it under military law requires proof, which we don’t yet have, that he intended to leave his unit for good or sought to avoid a hazardous assignment.
Nor is it proved, despite what you may have heard, that Bergdahl’s going AWOL directly or indirectly caused the deaths of six soldiers sent to look for him, though the search certainly imposed costs and risks on the Army and its troops. Never mind: According to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “There is compelling evidence that the sergeant violated military law and may have even collaborated with the enemy.”
I know of no mathematical formula that can determine whether freeing five dangerous enemies of the United States was too high a price to get this one soldier back, any more than I can figure out what Obama’s critics think he should have done about Bergdahl — let him rot forever in Taliban custody?
But I do think we could all benefit from O’Brien’s sense of war’s ineradicable moral dilemmas and inherent absurdities — not the least of which is that even the most powerful army is vulnerable to the mental quirks of individual troops.
So there is a Bergdahl, just as there was a Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who left his unit in South Korea in 1965 and crossed into the North, thinking the regime would ship him to the Soviet Union and he could go home from there. The North Koreans imprisoned him and made him do propaganda work until his negotiated release in 2004, whereupon the U.S. Army put a uniform on the old man, put him in jail for 25 days and, finally, discharged him dishonorably.
And there was a Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who thought linking up with a Canadian unit, rather than his own, for six weeks during World War II would be a good way to get sent to the stockade instead of the front. His superiors, with a bloody fight for western Germany raging around them, decided to make an example of him. He ended up being the only American executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Slovik’s execution is now widely considered excessive, a low moment in U.S. military history, just as Abraham Lincoln’s famous propensity for pardoning Union Army deserters, to the great frustration of his generals, has been richly vindicated in hindsight.
Someday, we, too, may truly be able to make sense of Bergdahl and what he did out there on that ridge in Afghanistan, a place to which he and thousands of other soldiers had been sent to fight a war about which their government, under Obama, was at best ambivalent.
Clearly, some of Bergdahl’s comrades are in no mood to forgive, yet. O’Brien tells us that Cacciato’s best friend in his squad felt more charitably toward that AWOL soldier: “He had nothing against Cacciato. The whole thing was silly, of course, immature and dumb, but even so, he had nothing against the kid. It was just too bad. A waste among infinitely wider wastes.”
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.