Opinion Forum

Robert B. Simpson: A complex case

Having written more than once on the dangers of prejudging an accused and of second-guessing, from afar, the conclusions of juries and judges, I have to be careful with what I say on the subject of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. So let me begin by saying I know the man is officially innocent of any wrongdoing until and unless proven guilty. An Article 32 investigation will determine if there is sufficient reason to try him, and if so, a court-martial will determine guilt or innocence and any punishment. In the meantime, of course, anyone can speculate, whether they have special knowledge, related experience, or no knowledge and experience at all.

I have no special knowledge of this case. I have a good many years of Infantry service, have experienced battlefield stress, know the difference between a well-disciplined unit and a poor one. I have conducted Article 32 investigations of serious cases involving deaths, have defended the accused in the days when courts-martial made more use of line officers in trials than they do now, and have sat on every level of military court-martial -- summary, special, and general. None of which makes me an authority, but I think that, in total, it gives me a reasonably good basis for understanding the case.

Bergdahl's defense is, reportedly, that his unit was undisciplined and poorly run; he couldn't trust his superior officer on the scene to take corrective action, so he intended to go alone through enemy territory to the nearest other friendly unit to report his concerns.

I'm sorry, but this makes no sense to me. His unit was moving back to its home base very soon, where he'd have access to communications, senior people, a chaplain, or an Inspector General officer. Traipsing .through Indian country to complain to a different unit, a unit that typically would have had no professional interest, and no official standing to get involved, is ludicrous.

The whole background and handling of the Bergdahl case has become, sad to say, the usual political football. First, there was and is unhappiness that enemy combatant prisoners were swapped for him. Because, it is said repeatedly, America doesn't negotiate with the enemy. Well, yes, that's our policy and, even though it has been violated from time to time, we try to stick to it. However, there's a gray area where prisoners are concerned.

There has been understandable heartburn over our trading five apparently high-level Taliban prisoners for this one U.S. soldier. But the Taliban held the best cards in this case. We could have made all the counter-offers we wanted to, and all they had to do was say "no." In the American tradition, we wanted our citizen back. In the Taliban tradition, they seem less emotionally involved.

Such trades are likely to be uneven. During the Cold War, we traded a key, sophisticated, highly-trained Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolph Abel, for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down and captured by the Russians. Powers had far less value to us than Abel did to the Soviets, but we made the deal. Even more uneven was an ally's prisoner swap: Our greatly admired and famously hard-nosed ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, authorized the trade of 1,027 prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, who'd been held by Hamas for roughly the same length of time Bergdahl was held by the Taliban. The prisoners exchanged for Shalit had reportedly been responsible for the killing of more than 500 Israelis.

While I understand our drive to get Bergdahl back, I regret the brief media show involving the President and Bergdahl's parents. I consider this an ill-advised bit of political play that had the unfortunate effect of suggesting official approval of the soldier's actions, actions we already had reason to question. In my opinion, this was a foolish and unnecessary bit of theater that could later appear to taint the actions of a military court.

If there is a trial, and if Bergdahl is found guilty, he will deserve more than a slap on the wrist. At least a few years in the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth seems appropriate. The five years of his previous captivity should have no bearing. Self-inflicted wounds don't merit a Purple Heart. Self-inflicted captivity doesn't merit a reduced sentence.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."