“Honor and distinction”? Bergdahl plans guilty plea for desertion in court martial
This may put a bit of a crimp in Susan Rice’s heroic narrative for Bowe Bergdahl. Rather than serving with “honor and distinction” in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reports that Bergdahl will acknowledge that he deserted his unit and committed “misbehavior before the enemy.” The latter admission could get Bergdahl a life sentence:
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for half a decade after abandoning his Afghanistan post, is expected to plead guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, two individuals with knowledge of the case said.
Bergdahl’s decision to plead guilty rather than face trial marks another twist in an eight-year drama that caused the nation to wrestle with difficult questions of loyalty, negotiating with hostage takers and America’s commitment not to leave its troops behind. President Donald Trump has called Bergdahl a “no-good traitor” who “should have been executed.”
The decision by the 31-year-old Idaho native leaves open whether he will return to captivity for years — this time in a U.S. prison — or receive a lesser sentence that reflects the time the Taliban held him under brutal conditions. He says he had been caged, kept in darkness, beaten and chained to a bed.
Rice’s defense of Bergdahl came after criticism of the deal for his release began to focus on his suspected status as a deserter. The Obama White House had not prepared itself for that reaction, believing that any criticism of trading five Taliban commanders for Bergdahl could be mitigated by declaring that the US leaves no man behind. Had they taken the time to discuss the issue with Bergdahl’s unit, they might have discovered the political risks involved in this particular trade, especially since their attempt to locate Bergdahl after his desertion resulted in at least one combat death and other serious casualties.
In fact, according to NBC’s Chuck Todd at the time, the Obama team expected “euphoria” over Bergdahl’s release. That may explain why Susan Rice wasn’t the only administration official pushing a vaguely heroic narrative:
No one begrudges the Bergdahl family’s delight in having their son out of Taliban hands, but the fact remains that the US gave up five high-value terrorist leaders in order to get a deserter back. Not only was that a bad trade, it was apparent from the beginning that Obama and his team hadn’t actually done much work to determine whether it was a good idea in the first place. Obama needed a good news story and freed five terrorist leaders to get it, and pitched the deal with a false narrative.
Bergdahl’s guilty plea wraps a large and odoriferous bow, if you’ll pardon the pun, around that arrangement. His plan to seek a judge-only court martial apparently didn’t provide him enough confidence that he could snow a jurist better than a jury of his military peers. His defense team had suffered a recent series of setbacks from the court, including a ruling that would allow Bergdahl’s former comrades to describe the casualties taken in their search during his sentencing, and a rejected request to dismiss the misbehavior before the enemy charge as too severe. With the whistleblower defense as weak as it was — Bergdahl planned to argue that he left his post to raise an “alarm” about problems in his unit — the best course left open to him was to throw himself on the mercy of the court.
That leaves the defense with just the hope of a soft sentence that takes into account his time as a Taliban prisoner, which lasted five years. Given that Bergdahl walked into their arms on his own, that seems like an audacious argument to make, but perhaps the court-martial will want to put this entire sorry episode in the rear-view mirror as fast as possible.