How American history judges Bowe Bergdahl

Claims made against the returned U.S. soldier need to be seen in light of our past

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This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)

This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)

When the movie “Patton” was released in 1970, in the midst of one of our most divisive wars, it thrilled American theatergoers. The account of our nation’s finest tank commander won seven academy awards, including best picture.

The movie opens with a reprise of George Patton’s legendary speech to the U.S. Third Army just before D-Day, in 1944. In his address, the full-throated Patton extolled the virtues of American manhood and the sanguine character of combat. His words brought howls of appreciation in 1944 — and have ever since.

“Men,” Patton said, “all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”

Was Patton right? Do we Americans love “the sting and clash of battle”?

The controversy over President Barack Obama’s swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held in Afghanistan as a Taliban prisoner since June 2009, places Patton’s claims in a new light, just as Bergdahl’s return has spurred questions about whether he is a hero, or should be put on trial for deserting his post. Claims that the search for Bergdahl might have resulted in as many as six U.S. combat deaths have deepened the controversy. And Bergdahl’s return has aroused impassioned criticism of Obama from his partisan opponents.

The Bergdahl controversy masks the difficulty all militaries have in defining when a soldier has deserted, or “just wandered off” — which might have been the case with Bergdahl. For the U.S. military, the key is intent: A soldier is listed as a deserter when he intends to separate himself from his unit permanently, and forever shirk his service. In wartime, as Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes clear, desertion is punishable by death.

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This image made from video released by the Taliban and obtained by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl at left. Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier, went missing from his outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009 and was released from Taliban captivity on May 31, 2014 in exchange for five enemy combatants held in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo/IntelCenter, File)

This image made from video released by the Taliban and obtained by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a man believed …

You would think that this punishment, when added to the opprobrium that a deserter suffers from his family and fellow soldiers, would dampen the rate at which men (or women) in uniform leave their posts. But an examination of American military history shows that that’s not true.

Desertion rates in George Washington’s Continental Army peaked in the early years of the Revolutionary War (when desertion rates averaged an astonishing 20 to 25 percent of all men under arms), but fell off when his army became more professional. This didn’t keep Washington from lamenting his losses. The situation was so bad, he said, that the mountainous areas between New Hampshire and Vermont were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”

Desertion rates during the Civil War were not as high, with the Union Army suffering a 9 to 12 percent desertion rate. Of the approximately 42,000 Union soldiers court-martialed during the war, just over 14,000 were for desertion, with 147 executions for the offense. The desertion rate among Confederate units was much worse. In the wake of the Gettysburg defeat, Robert E. Lee struggled to keep his army together, with desertion rates peaking at between 20 to 25 percent. In all, more soldiers (North and South) were executed during the Civil War (some 500 in all) than in all our other conflicts combined — two-thirds of them for desertion.

With the Civil War as its model, the Army created a Morale Division after the U.S. entered World War One. The unit’s commander later noted that explaining to recruits why they were fighting kept them on duty. A 1918 memo noted that many U.S. recruits “seemed unclear about the purpose of the war.” The division’s work had an effect: 5,584 men were charged with desertion during the conflict (the lowest rate of any U.S. war), and 2,657 were convicted — with no executions.

Explaining a war’s purpose is a significant factor in the Bergdahl case. His unit was isolated for long periods of time and fighting a conflict that was fast becoming an afterthought for the American people. In truth, most Americans didn’t even know that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban until his release, a chilling commentary on America’s focus on the war.

World War Two was altogether different, because the line between being absent without leave, simply wandering off and desertion was blurred. The official figures (a 6.3 percent desertion rate at the war’s height, with just over 21,000 soldiers sentenced for the crime) don’t begin to tell the story. The “simply wandering off” problem was a significant factor in Europe in 1944, with thousands of soldiers “separated from their units” and living in the French countryside. For “separated from their units,” read “deserters.” A large number of these men were criminals, many of them rapists. Historian Max Hastings later described these wanderers as “a teeming horde” engaging in “a huge traffic in stolen military rations, fuel, equipment and even vehicles.”

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Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion 1944. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion 1944. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

To set an example, commander Dwight Eisenhower approved the execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who’d signed a statement that he had willingly left his rifle unit. Combat frightened Slovik, who had hoped he would be sent to prison. But on January 31, 1945, Slovik was executed by a firing squad. Slovik, who had had run-ins with the law in his youth, faced his executioners with bravery, commenting that “they’re shooting me for the bread I stole when I was twelve years old.” It was the first execution carried out by the military since 1864.

The desertion rate fell during the Korean conflict (when 22 of every one thousand soldiers deserted) and fell further during the escalation of the Vietnam War. But after the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, in January 1968, desertion rates skyrocketed. But the American military faced far worse problems in Vietnam than simply desertion.

“Vietnam was a mess,” a now-retired military lawyer who served during the conflict says. “The Long Binh jail was just filled with GIs who refused orders. And they were militant. When the war got controversial in America, it got controversial in Vietnam. Some soldiers were adamant about desertion, saying they would gladly sign the papers admitting to it, just to show how much they disagreed with what we were doing.”

In one famous incident, in October 1971, soldiers of the 12th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Firebase Pace near the Cambodian border refused a direct order to conduct a night patrol. In Saigon, Gen. Bruce Palmer helicoptered into the base to talk to the soldiers. “We could have had those men shot — and I suppose in any other war they might have been,” Palmer told me in an interview in 1985. “But this was a difficult war, so we let them down easy.”

Later in the interview, Palmer cited the Pace incident as a symbol of what America faces when it enters a protracted war with an ill-defined enemy — such as the Taliban. “If you have to explain to your soldiers why they’re there,” he concluded, “they probably shouldn’t be.”

For a significant number of Vietnam veterans, the Bergdahl controversy symbolizes the American way of war in the post-World War Two era. Several Vietnam veterans whom I interviewed on the Bergdahl issue adamantly support of the Afghan veteran — and dismiss the political firestorm his release has caused.

Michael Leaveck, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, says he “just doesn’t know what to think of Bergdahl,” but then adds: “But that’s the whole point, isn’t it. We don’t have all the facts, and I’m certainly not going to condemn a man without due process. What angers me is that we have politicians and even military officers out there condemning him. It’s shameful. They should know better.”

Leaveck, who served as legislative director of Vietnam Veterans of America after the conflict, also notes the case of two Americans who deserted and collaborated with the enemy. The first was Charles Jenkins, an American soldier who crossed the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 1965. Jenkins returned to the U.S. in 2004, was charged with desertion and received a dishonorable discharge. During his trial, Jenkins appeared in his Army uniform, complete with the Army Good Conduct Medal he’d received while serving in South Korea.

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Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: Court-martial proceedings against Marine Private First Class Robert Garwood (C) surrounded by his attorneys on March 27, 1980 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: Court-martial proceedings against Marine Private First Class Robert Garwood (C) surrounded …

The other case is that of Robert Garwood, a U.S. Marine who was captured by the Vietnamese in 1965. When the Vietnamese released American POWs in 1973, Garwood stayed behind. A number of American soldiers believe Garwood collaborated with the enemy — which Garwood denies. Garwood returned to the U.S. in March 1979, was charged with being a deserter, put on trial and convicted of communicating with the enemy and assaulting an American prisoner of war. Garwood was reduced in rank and given a dishonorable discharge.

What stands out in both the Jenkins and Garwood cases is that, after the initial public anger at them passed, the country was very forgiving. Both men faded into civilian life and obscurity. This is likely to happen to Bergdahl, no matter the truth of the allegations against him. It is a sign, perhaps, that the nation understands the enormous difficulties young men face in war.

Like Leaveck, Dave Evans — who served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and was severely wounded there — is angry with politicians who question Bergdahl’s patriotism. “So let me ask you, how many of those politicians ever heard a shot fired in anger,” he says. “Who the hell are they to sit in judgment? This man spent five years in a cage, and they never wore the uniform of their country. We’ve been in that country for nine years, which is about eight years too long. Desertion? Here’s my question, ‘Who deserted who?’”

Sadly, the case of Bowe Bergdahl does not provide a clear answer to the question of whether, in fact, George Patton was right. Do Americans love to fight? Do we love the sting and clash of battle? The controversy over Bergdahl shows that Americans remain undecided. But history’s judgment, at least in this case, seems certain — if unsatisfying. Some Americans welcome “the sting and clash of battle,” while a small but significant number of us, especially in the midst of our longest and most unpopular wars, don’t.

Mark Perry is a historian whose latest book is "The Most Dangerous Man.  The Making of Douglas MacArthur."

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