It was a show trial, but not in the usual meaning of the term. Bowe Bergdahl was never meant to be punished. The trial was all for show.
It was not, however, mismanagement or incompetence, but arguably deliberate.
On the night of June 30, 2009, then Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl went missing. On July 2, 2009, the Pentagon said that Bergdahl had walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan with three Afghan counterparts and was believed to have been taken prisoner. Bergdahl’s commanding officers said that a vigorous, but unsuccessful 45-day search for Bergdahl put soldiers in danger. During his nearly five years as a captive of the Taliban, the Army twice promoted, Bergdahl, first to the rank of specialist in June 2010, then to the rank of sergeant in June 2011. On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released from captivity in exchange for five senior Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay in a controversial deal negotiated by the Obama Administration.
In June 2014, Major General Kenneth Dahl was assigned to lead the Army’s investigation into the 2009 disappearance and capture of Bergdahl. In August 2014, Dahl interviewed Bergdahl. In December 2014, after a comprehensive legal review, the Dahl investigation was forwarded to a General Courts Martial Convening Authority, Gen. Mark Milley, commanding general of Forces Command.
On March 25, 2015, the Army announced, based on Gen. Milley’s recommendation, that it was charging Bergdahl with misbehavior before the enemy and desertion, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In April 2015, an Article 32 hearing of the Bergdahl evidence was scheduled for July 8. 2015. An Article 32 hearing is similar to the civilian evidentiary or probable cause hearing to determine, after a criminal complaint has been filed, whether there is enough evidence to require a trial. In June 2015, at the request of the defense, the Article 32 hearing was postponed until September 17, 2015.
According to one report of the September 17th Article 32 hearing, Army prosecutors presented a very weak case in support of the charges against Bergdahl. They chose not to call any of Bergdahl’s enlisted comrades who had a very different impression of his behavior than the one Bergdahl gave to investigators. Prosecutors also did not call any witnesses to support the argument that the Army lost men trying to recover Bergdahl.
Remarkably, the Army allegedly buried recordings of signals surveillance in Afghanistan from July 1-2, 2009, days after his disappearance, where Taliban are talking on Bergdahl’s own phone saying he wanted to join them and other recordings where the Taliban, on their phones, are talking about Bergdahl trying to join them.
In an even more bizarre twist of events, the investigating officer, Maj. Gen. Dahl, appeared as a defense witness, where he provided exculpatory “psychological” evidence, describing Bergdahl as a confused, poorly adjusted idealist who doesn’t deserve further punishment.
The presiding officer of the Article 32 hearing, Lt. Col. Mark Visger reportedly recommended a special court-martial for Bergdahl, rather than a general court-martial, the former being essentially a military version of a misdemeanor court. According to Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, Lt. Col. Visger called for unusually light penalties, recommending against both a dishonorable discharge and confinement.
The following year, the New York Times reported that the Army’s 22-member investigative team, led by Maj. Gen Dahl, which spent two months interviewing scores of witnesses and compiled the report that formed the initial basis for prosecuting Bergdahl, never proposed that he should be tried on the most serious charges.
To an outside observer, it appeared both the prosecution and defense agreed, early on, that Bergdahl was indeed a confused, poorly adjusted idealist who didn’t deserve further punishment.
It was merely coincidental that President Obama appointed General Milley to be Chief of Staff of the Army and, within two months of the Article 32 hearing, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl was promoted to Lieutenant General.
Future deserters will no doubt take note of how easily Bergdahl’s punishment went from life imprisonment to nothing.
The Bergdahl sentence was clearly an unconscionable travesty of justice and a slap in the face to all those who have honorably worn the uniform.
Yet, even before a trial began, the outcome seemed preordained, an eventual de facto Obama pardon, implemented by an Obama Pentagon.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution.” He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.