Does it Matter if Bowe Bergdahl Was a Deserter?

For the sake of Washington, this story is about Guantanamo, the power of the White House versus Congress, and the drawdown of the Afghanistan War.

National Journal

There is no shortage of people who will speak out against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of the Afghanistan war, just released from five years of capture.

A year later, there's still no consensus on the question: is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Expect a similar path for Bergdahl.

One is Justin Gerleve, Bergdahl's former squad leader, who appeared on CNN on Wednesday. "I believe that he totally deserted — not only his fellow soldiers — but his leadership that wanted the best for him and for our country," Gerleve said. He also implied that Bergdahl's capture led to an increase in targeted attacks against their units. (There are disputed claims over whether several died as a direct result of Bergdahl's actions.) "I can't say for sure the leakage was from Bergdahl, but it's kind of that suspicion that it did happen," Gerleve continued.

But when CNN's Jake Tapper asked him whether Bergdahl should have been rescued, Gerleve responded. "My opinion is yes; no American needs to be left behind."

This exchange seems to encapsulate the media coverage of Bowe Bergdahl — questioning his character while admitting, ultimately, that those details don't matter much.

Broad swaths of Capitol Hill that agree. Even the lawmakers who have expressed the most ardent outrage at the deal the White House cut to secure Bergdahl's release, such as Republican Sen. John McCain, himself a former POW, say it's irrelevant whether he was a deserter or not.

"I don't view that as having any impact on people who are on the top level of Taliban into Qatar, which has a Taliban office," McCain said. "And they are going to be back in Afghanistan within a year, killing Americans, trying to kill Americans."'

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5004) }}

The White House held a classified briefing Wednesday evening on the details of the prisoner exchange. When it ended, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe echoed this idea that the administration's actions are more important than Bergdahl's military standing. "If Bergdahl had been a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, it would have minimized the atrocity that I feel that was committed by Obama for turning these people loose," he said. (Time also wonders aloud on its latest cover if Bergdahl was worth the price of five Taliban members.)

"There's too much emphasis on Bergdahl. That is not that important," Inhofe said. "What is important is what the president did."

The Bergdahl media story is following a familiar arc. Consider that in the beginning of the Snowden leaks, the media swarmed on all the details of his life — researching his girlfriends, his family, his activity on Internet forums, and so on. As that story evolved, it became clear it wasn't about Snowden as a person. It was a story about the state of global espionage, and a national reckoning of the power of U.S. government's signals intelligence apparatus. A year later, there's still no consensus on the question: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Expect a similar path for Bergdahl.

For sure, there are lawmakers who want to know Bergdahl's history and "whether this man was a deserter or not," as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein puts it. And a number of lawmakers do think it's relevant whether he deserted.

"For the American people, they would be willing to pay a pretty high price if somebody was a combat veteran," Republican Sen. Mark Kirk or Illinois argued. "If a guy was just a deserter they would not be into paying a very high price for getting him back."

The Army has pledged to complete a "comprehensive" review on the circumstances around Bergdahl's case, but the results may not come for some time. And in the meantime, lawmakers concerned about a myriad of other issues not related to Bergdahl don't want to distract from their critiques.

Part of what's at issue is that there is still so much not known about Bergdahl, with reports streaming out about the circumstances surrounding his capture by the Taliban. Basing your criticism around the prisoner swap on Bergdahl's background could end up backfiring. "The policy that [we are] making sure we get left-behind soldiers, prisoners of war — in this case, a captured prisoner — is the first priority,"Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska said.

Another part of the issue is that there is such little precedent for this scenario — an AWOL soldier-turned POW (reader-historians, feel free to email us when this has happened before). In that vacuum, what we're seeing is a clash of long-held U.S. values that serve more as maxims than iron-clad policy: "We don't negotiate with terrorists" (what the Republicans are saying) versus "Leave no one behind" (what the White House is saying). According to an Army spokesperson speaking to the International Business Times, "there are no set regulations governing when or whether a soldier can be left behind — that it is left to the discretion of the commanding officer." And the U.S. does negotiate with terrorists, just not publicly.

According to a 2005, Congressional Research Service Report, the official U.S. policy regarding alive prisoners of war (from Vietnam, at least) reads as follows: "Should any report prove true [that an American is still being held captive in Vietnam], we will take appropriate action to ensure the return of those involved." Although there is a precedent for charging American POWs after they return home. In 1979, Pfc. Robert R. Garwood returned to the U.S. after 14 years in Vietnam (he was prisoner for at least four of those years). Upon arriving home, he was court-martialed and convicted of collaborating with the enemy. All that considered,the Bergdahl scenario is still unique.

The story of his possible desertion and capture will keep making headlines and will draw attention. But, for the sake of Washington, this story isn't about a solider. It is about Guantanamo, the power of the White House versus Congress, and the drawdown of the Afghanistan war.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article