deserters traitors and resisters a long tradition of those who walk away from war

The US military should be glad that Bowe Bergdahl is all it has to worry about. Almost 420,000 soldiers deserted during the Vietnam War. This means they left their posts without planning to return or didn’t show up for deployment. Those who were gone for more than a month were considered to have deserted by the government. Some were caught, others were able to change their names and stay out of the public eye in the U.S., and still others disappeared into the black market economy of Southeast Asia, where they sometimes sold drugs and weapons. Some of those who were caught were put on trial, but most of them were handled by the government. No one was put to death. In fact, Private Eddie Slovik was the last U.S. soldier to be put to death for deserting during the Second World War. He was the only soldier to be punished this way, supposedly to set an example. The British, Germans, and Russians were much more likely to quickly kill people who ran away from the battlefield.

After the Vietnam War ended, there were several amnesties for deserters. However, the accused had to turn themselves in to get a pardon, and they were also given a bad conduct discharge, which is like getting a felony conviction in a civilian court. There are still federal warrants out for a few thousand deserters from Vietnam, and every year a few more men in their sixties are found, arrested, and punished in different ways.

Some people have called Bowe Bergdahl the only deserter from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. This isn’t exactly true, though, because his story is complicated and the U.S. Army isn’t sure that he left his post with no intention of coming back. There are also stories of other deserters in Afghanistan who didn’t make the news because they weren’t caught by the Taliban and held as prisoners. Sergeant Robert Bales was one of them. In March 2012, he left his base to kill 16 villagers. People think he didn’t want to go back to work. Others who left their posts in Afghanistan under similar circumstances as Bergdahl were usually picked up by friendly forces or came back on their own when they realised that once you start walking in the harsh Afghan terrain, you have to go a long way to get anywhere, and there are no 7-11s along the way.

Deserting your fellow soldiers is a very bad thing to do because it puts everyone in your army unit at risk, but it is an understandable result of wars that are mostly voluntary and don’t have much to do with national security. During the Second World War, which most people thought was a “good war,” only 40,000 American soldiers quit. No one wants to be the last American to die in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, or Syria, because it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it would be for nothing. Just like soldiers on the ground in Vietnam figured out that the war couldn’t be won and lost hope before the generals and politicians did, no one wants to be the last American to die in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, or Syria.

Bergdahl’s critics often point out that his letters and emails showed he didn’t like Afghanistan or the army in general. I think that most of these critics, if not all of them, have never served in the military. Soldiers complain a lot, almost all the time, even when the war is going well and morale is high. Even though I worked in a safe intelligence post in Vietnam, people were always complaining. They would often say “Fuck the Army,” which was often shortened to “FTA” and was sometimes written on buildings and walls at military bases. Who among us would have done what Bergdahl did? We would have done it if we could have found a way to do it without being punished for the rest of our lives.

Some soldiers who were forced to serve did so only because they wanted to get out. When they only had a year left, they got what was then called a “short-timers’ attitude” and didn’t care about anything. Many soldiers had calendars that counted down the days until they got out of the service and went back to “the world.” The countdown became more serious when there were less than 100 days left and the number went down to 99.

So Bergdahl is being blamed for having an attitude, which is something that many soldiers have, and he is already being judged guilty of the felony charge of desertion, even though the army hasn’t decided if it applies to him yet. Even if there is a case, he might not be charged because the Taliban kept him in jail for a long time and tortured him.

The other, possibly more serious part of the Bergdahl case is that he ended up in the army at all after being kicked out of the Coast Guard after only 26 days of training for not being fit for duty. Over the past thirteen years, it has been hard for the military to keep up with its manpower needs, and many people who are not mentally or physically ready for the demands of military service have no doubt been able to pass muster. But there aren’t many problem soldiers today compared to when Vietnam was at its peak. At that time, joining the army was often a way to get out of jail, minimum education standards were rarely enforced, and there was a clear breakdown in army discipline at all levels. On army bases and navy ships, there were race riots and a lot of drug use. Two soldiers in my basic training company were so mentally disabled that they couldn’t answer simple questions, and one soldier had to keep repeating training because he was so fat that he couldn’t meet the minimum physical requirements. This was thought to be because he was sick. When we were out in the field, it was my job to walk behind him and poke him every so often with the butt of my rifle so he wouldn’t fall out of formation. I’m sorry.

All of this doesn’t mean that there should be some wiggle room when it comes to military service, but Bergdahl isn’t the only person who has done something like this. Wars of choice are hard to sell, especially when a young soldier finds out that instead of defending freedom, he is punishing locals for reasons neither he nor the locals can understand. Someone in Washington should probably figure out that soldiers do a much better job when they feel like they are doing something worthwhile. However, that would mean the end of the president’s right to wage preemptive war, so it’s not likely to happen. Inside the Beltway, everyone is talking about what needs to be done in Iraq, so the only question left is how to use military resources to get some vaguely defined but very wanted result. Nearly 5,000 dead Americans and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis show that sending soldiers in as a first choice to fix things is a very bad idea.

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