Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Bergdahl - Justice Or Scapegoating?

I understand that Bergdahl's walking off from his post in Afghanistan, getting taken by the Taliban and imprisoned and tortured for five years, led to others risking their lives to find him.  It appears that no deaths can be attributed to searching for Bergdahl,  but least one solder, Mark Allen, suffered grievous harm.  A further issue, that was totally out of Bergdahl's control, was the debate about whether five Taliban should be released in exchange for Bergdahl.  There are legitimate questions about the impact of releasing the Taliban prisoners, but, for example, Israelis release far more Palestinian prisoners in exchange for just one Israeli soldier, even for the remains of Israeli soldiers. 

Bergdahl was a troubled man.  He'd been washed out of Coast Guard bootcamp.  When he applied to the army, they overlooked that problem and accepted him anyway.  And later, he was diagnosed.
"In July 2015, an Army forensic psychiatrist issued a report diagnosing Bergdahl with schizotypal personality disorder, a condition marked by distorted perceptions, eccentric behavior and “magical” thinking, at the time of his alleged misconduct."

From Stars and Stripes:
“I expect Fidell [Bergdahl's lead attorney] will argue that the Army shares some blame here,” [Eric Carpenter, an assistant law professor at Florida International University and a former Army defense attorney and prosecutor] said. “They brought in somebody that should never have been in the Army in the first place – someone already with mental health problems, and then they put him in the most stressful place that exists – a small [outpost] in the middle of the most hostile part of Afghanistan, and then gee, surprise, surprise, he had a breakdown.”
I understand that when people are harmed - like the people who tried to find Bergdahl - that there is a strong need to find justice.  This need regularly cause the convictions of the wrong peopleEyewitnesses too often swear that the wrong person committed the crime.  Is convicting Bergdahl going to bring justice?  He's already been imprisoned for five years and tortured by the Taliban.

This case is different.  Bergdahl acknowledges he deserted.  There is Bergdahl's decision to walk away from his unit to consider.  But a larger moral issue here is why was he put into this position in the first place when they knew he was not mentally stable?  If people feel that someone has to be punished for the harm to those seeking to find him, is Bergdahl the right person to target?

Focusing on Bergdahl takes the heat of the army officials who set up the waiver system when they were having trouble getting recruits, a program that resulted in Bergdahl being accepted into the army.  Or the specific official(s) who gave him a waiver.

Or people like George Bush whose actions led to the death of thousands of American troops, and hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout the region of the war.

Or the apparent disorganization of the people running Bergdahl's unit, which is raised in the case of Mark Allen, 
“'Whereabouts of the DUSTWUN' means Bergdahl. The second day of the patrol, they came under attack. Allen was shot in the head. One man was hit in the hand by an RPG; another was wounded by shrapnel.
This report includes an extensive discussion about what went wrong on this mission. It says the patrol was horribly planned and badly executed in every possible way. Which is in line with what some soldiers and commanders told us in interviews: that in the days and weeks right after Bergdahl left his outpost, there was such a scramble to find him that soldiers were sometimes left under-equipped and vulnerable. But whether any deaths can be attributed to the search for Bergdahl, according to the Army, the answer seems to be no."
Should Bergdahl be blamed for the poor organization and planning of his unit's missions?  That was precisely what Bergdahl says his desertion was aimed at - bringing attention to how badly his unit was organized.

Emotion usually clouds our decisions and messes with our moral consistency.  We need a scapegoat for things that have gone wrong.  A mentally ill recruit is easier to identify than the folks who let him into the army despite his mental health problems.

Our sense of culpability varies depending on the symbolic meaning of the persons in questions.  We, at least superficially revere vets, yet disabled vets don't radiate the image of strength and power that we want to see in our military.  Their mental problems resulting from war were often dismissed, even punished,  by the military.  Disabled vets confuse our symbolic reactions.  On the one hand our impulse is to honor vets who fought for their country.  On the other hand, disabled people are seen as less than everyone else, though we're overcoming that bias, at least when it comes to vets. Vets who desert are traitors.  But what if they are mentally unhealthy?

My sense is that there is a lot of blame to go around here and piling it all onto Bergdahl, who has already suffered as a Taliban prisoner for five years, won't serve any good.  Bergdahl is not a danger to society. Ending this situation by imprisoning him, means the larger organizational issues that led to his desertion won't be addressed.


  1. In case you missed this or haven't seen it-

    Dishonorable discharge means no medical benefits to treat his mental illness. No jail time, either. Not sure this is the best solution all around.

    1. Thanks, Mike - I did hear something on the radio this morning, but it's not yet 10am in Alaska, so I'm a little behind. Sounds like my thinking wasn't far off from what the judge determined. Your link says the sentence still has to be reviewed, but can only be made more lenient, not more severe. The one thing I would hope he gets back is his veteran health benefits. He clearly needs them and most of those involved seem to agree he was no traitor. Here's your link again with an embedded link to make it easier for others to follow.


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