The justice system is complicated, but the military-justice system is another matter entirely. The vagaries of Army courts may help to explain why a general decided to charge Bowe Bergdahl with desertion on Wednesday.
That choice seems pretty confusing: After all, why would the U.S. trade five high-value Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl, only to turn around several months later and accuse him of a major crime? The Obama administration is already taking political fire from conservatives for an alleged miscalculation.
But General Mark Milley, who made the call, may have had a restricted set of choices. While Bergdahl was in Taliban captivity, his term of enlistment expired, even though he remained on military rosters and was classified as being on active duty. As Military Times explained in December, that means the Army really had only two choices: either grant Bergdahl an honorable discharge, or else begin the procedure to court-martial him.
"We're in an all-or-nothing situation," retired military lawyer Jeffrey Addicott told Military Times.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Bergdahl will end up in a court-martial. As Colonel Daniel J.W. King explained in a statement at Fort Bragg Wednesday, Bergdahl is being charged not only with desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, but also with misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place. The charges are now referred to an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a grand jury in the civilian-justice system.