Does Bergdahl’s torture at Taliban hands count as time served?

With the announcement that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will finally face military justice for allegedly deserting his unit in Afghanistan with what some contend was his intention to join the Taliban, this alleged deserter’s defenders have their hands full.

Bergdahl’s self-defense is a dubious one. His actions led the members of his unit to mount an ill-fated rescue mission that cost American lives. Writing in The Daily Beast in June of last year, one of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers recalled the men who died during that mission.

Though the 2009 Afghan presidential election slowed the search for Bergdahl, it did not stop it. Our battalion suffered six fatalities in a three-week period. On August 18, an IED killed Private First Class Morris Walker and Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen during a reconnaissance mission. On August 26, while conducting a search for a Taliban shadow sub-governor supposedly affiliated with Bergdahl’s captors, Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss was shot in the face and killed. On September 4, during a patrol to a village near the area in which Bergdahl vanished, an insurgent ambush killed Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews and gravely wounded Private First Class Matthew Martinek, who died of his wounds a week later. On September 5, while conducting a foot movement toward a village also thought affiliated with Bergdahl’s captors, Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey stepped on an improvised land mine. He died the next day.

It is important to name all these names. For the veterans of the units that lost these men, Bergdahl’s capture and the subsequent hunt for him will forever tie to their memories, and to a time in their lives that will define them as people. He has finally returned. Those men will never have the opportunity.

For petty and fleeting political gain, the White House actively misled the public about the nature of Bergdahl’s service, his capture by enemy forces, and the legality of the transfer of five Taliban commanders for this soldier’s release.

While it is clear that Bergdahl did not serve with “honor and distinction,” as National Security Advisor Susan Rice once claimed, it is not clear what kind of punishment Bergdahl should receive for desertion if he is convicted. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but his defenders don’t believe he should serve any more time in captivity.

In order to support the case that Bergdahl has suffered enough, the soldier’s attorneys released a statement on Wednesday detailing the extent of the suffering he faced at the hands of his Taliban captors.

“I was kept in constant isolation during the entire 5 years, with little to no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door I was held behind. I was continuously shown Taliban videos.”

“Told I was going to be executed. Told I was never going back. Told I would leave the next day, and the next day I would be there for 30 years. Told I was going to die there. Told to kill myself. Told I would have my ears and nose cut off, as well as other parts of my body. I was told anything they could think of, weather [sic] it was through sign language, broken English or fluent English.”

Bergdahl’s statement goes on to describe how he was “chained to a bed spread-eagle,” and that his captors tried to rip his hair and beard off. He added that he made 12 attempts to escape captivity, but he failed every time.

Bergdahl’s critics will not find this account of his suffering compelling. After all, he still has his life whereas some of his former comrades do not. But those who might be inclined to see Bergdahl’s suffering at the Taliban’s hands as the equivalent of time served in prison are embracing a logical fallacy.

Many on the left eagerly slay a straw man when they contend that Republican critics of the “Bergdahl Swap” would have preferred to let this American soldier rot in Taliban captivity indefinitely. No responsible voices on the right have made this contention, but it serves the left’s purposes to suggest that their opponents are irrational and motivated purely by a blind desire for retribution. But some on the left make a compelling case when they claim that, not only does the United States have a responsibility to retrieve all of its soldiers from enemy hands, but that the government also has a duty to ensure that every American citizen faces American justice.

Therefore, it is inconsistent to suggest that Bergdahl’s time in Taliban hands is equivalent to time served in an American prison should he be found guilty of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. To credit Bergdahl with time in detention because he sought out the Taliban and was subject to their cruelties would not be justice. Deep down, those who allow their hearts to bleed for Bergdahl know that.

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