A lead article on CNN today reads as follows: ‘Fellow soldiers call Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not a hero.’
It seems that one is defining the term ‘hero’ in a rather odd way, if one can’t consider a deserter a hero. Let’s look first at what desertion from the U.S. military means, in terms of actions and possible consequences, and then more specifically at Mr. Bergdahl’s particular situation, or at least what is currently known of it.
When a soldier decides to desert, he or she individually opposes the strongest government in the world, and that government’s military, which purports to all but own the soldier. Often, the reason for the desertion is military life itself, complete disillusionment with the war the soldier has been forced to fight, or a combination of both.
Military life has long been a cause of desertion. Two examples from different time periods will illustrate this, although these are only examples; the government’s actions that motivated these behaviors have permeated the U.S. military from the American Revolution to the present time.
During the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848), a recruit from Louisiana said this: “We are worse off than slaves; confined within narrow walls; very few liberties allowed us. There is a great deal to be seen in this city and much to please the fancy of any free man; but as a soldier I can appreciate nothing.”
A solider who served in Vietnam described his treatment, and that of his fellow soldiers, by U.S. officers. Mr. John Zrebiec, of the U.S. Marine Corps, described being sent to the ‘duty hut’ for discipline. This was, he stated, the result of being ‘…caught smoking, or something of this nature.” When asked by the interviewer what happened in the hut, his response was this: “The drill instructors would beat them up.” Mr. Zrebiec said he was once knocked unconscious in the duty hut by his ‘superiors’.
Countless soldiers since the American Revolution have left the military due to disillusionment with the war they either volunteered or were conscripted to fight. Desertion rates during the Iraq War were very high. Sgt. Camilo Mejia was the first veteran of that war to publicly oppose it. After returning from deployment, but still on active duty, he deserted. He served nine months of a one year prison sentence, in addition to demotion to private, forfeiture of pay and a Bad Conduct Discharge.
Marine Corps Reservist Stephen Funk was the first enlisted man to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq. He said the following: “I will not obey an unjust war based on deception by our leaders.” He served a six month prison term after being convicted of being absent without official leave (AWOL).
This is not a recent phenomenon, only happening in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Looking again to the Mexican-American War, the San Patricio Battalion was comprised of several hundred former U.S. soldiers who saw the injustice of the U.S. cause and deserted to join the Mexicans. “Soon after enlisting in the U.S. army the San Patricio began to see they were fighting on the side of injustice. They saw the United States carrying out a huge, greedy and cruel land grab, reminiscent of the English occupation of Ireland. The killing, looting, rape and senseless destroying of Mexican civilian property reminded them of the British injustice back in Ireland”.It should be noted that only about two-fifths of the members of the San Patricio battalion were Irish.
Mexico was defeated, and the members of the San Patricio battalion experienced horrific punishments by the U.S. Some were flogged and branded on their faces, thirty were hanged after waiting hours with their necks in nooses, and many were forced to watch these atrocities.
What regrets do deserters have after the fact? Again, anecdotal evidence is all that will be presented here. Ms. Elenora Johnson, who deserted during the Gulf War, was sentenced to three months of hard labor and forfeiture of two-thirds of her pay for five months. She was given a Bad Conduct Discharge and demoted from E-4 to E-1 status. She was asked later about her decision to desert. Here is her response: “Now that the war is over, I have been asked if I regret not going to the Persian Gulf. My answer is ‘No!’”.
One would think that in the U.S., which prides itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave (whatever on earth all that means), would provide its soldiers with a fair trial. This, of course, is not the case. Mr. Mejia describes the day of his trial:
“On the day of my trial, access to the base was restricted to military personnel, my attorneys, and a few family members. Everyone else was directed to gate number three, but the signs leading to that gate were taken down during the three days of my trial. The entire block of the courthouse was barricaded, and there were civilian and military police officers patrolling the area, and they had trained dogs sniffing the area. Reporters were contained in a media center about a mile away from the courthouse, and everyone’s computers, cameras, recording devices, and cell phones were confiscated prior to entering the courtroom.
“All of our pretrial motions were struck down, and many key witnesses and crucial pieces of evidence were not allowed in the case. Violations of army regulations by my unit, and violations of international law and the supreme law of the land by the military, were readily ignored, and the prosecution was allowed to bring the entire case down to the question of whether I got on a plane or not, thus receiving an easy, undeserved victory.”
The deserters mentioned herein were lucky; desertion is a capital offense, yet none of these paid the ultimate price. However, that price has been paid. The stories of William H. Howe, who was executed for desertion on August 26, 1864, and Eddie P. Slovik, executed for desertion on January 31, 1945, are filled with the most blatant injustices that no legal system in any nation that calls itself a democracy would ever tolerate. Yet the U.S. military system is an extra-judicial system all its own, not constrained by due process, trial by peers, or other rights Constitutionally guaranteed to U.S. citizens, but not U.S. soldiers.
Did not Mr. Mejia, Mr. Funk and Mr. Johnson act with courage? All opposed an immoral government, with the power of life and death over them, waging an immoral war. All suffered the consequences of their actions, consequences they knew would be harsh, and which could have been much worse than they eventually experienced. Yet they had the courage to stand by their convictions, and say ‘no’ to evil.
Let us look now at what little is known of Mr. Bergdahl. “According to firsthand accounts from soldiers in his platoon, Bergdahl, while on guard duty, shed his weapons and walked off the observation post with nothing more than a compass, a knife, water, a digital camera and a diary.”
Mr. Bergdahl has made no statements himself as yet, although it has been said by those who know him that he had expressed disillusionment with the war and the military, as countless soldiers have done before him.
Can anyone realistically say that his actions were not courageous? Without weapons, he chose to walk unprotected into ‘enemy’ territory, knowing that capture, torture, or execution awaited him. We don’t know yet exactly what motivated him; it’s possible we never will. But nothing in what is known now indicates anything other than a brave man acting on his convictions, regardless of the consequences.
Many of today’s elected officials, most of whom have been guilty of sending young Americans to kill and die for corporate profits, are criticizing Mr. Bergdahl, assuming both that he deserted, and that desertion is a negative behavior. It isn’t known yet if Mr. Bergdahl did, in fact, desert, but if he did, he is to be commended for his courageous, moral behavior. It is to be hoped that his example of bravery will be a model for other soldiers currently, or in the future, fighting America’s corporate-fueled wars.
Fantina, Robert. Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776 – 2006. Page 56.
Ibid, page 229.