Honor is a virtue that stands apart; dishonor is more recognizable still. President Obama and his aides tried to cover Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in glory, even receiving his parents at the White House. But contradictions in his story of captivity in Afghanistan have overturned the narrative. Sgt. Bergdahl now faces a general court martial and similarly, Mr. Obama’s exchange of terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for his return is weighed in the court of public opinion. Attempting to trade America’s security for a public relations coup disgraces the nation, and most of all, the president himself.
The Army charged Sgt. Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a serious indictment for which he could be sentenced to life in prison. The 29-year-old soldier disappeared from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and had been held in captivity for five years when the president traded him for five senior Taliban commanders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. No date has been set for the court martial.
The Pentagon’s sober announcement is a jarring departure from Mr. Obama’s stagecraft in May 2014 when he appeared with the soldier’s parents in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate the news that Sgt. Bergdahl had been freed. The president’s national security apologist, Susan Rice, said he had served “the United States with honor and distinction.” Then his fellow soldiers came forward to tell another story, that his disappearance had all the signs of desertion, and that a half-dozen American soldiers were killed searching for him. Some honor. Some distinction.
The Bergdahl case has become a symbol of Mr. Obama’s determination to redeem his 2008 campaign pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, national security be damned. The five Taliban evildoers are only the most notorious of the hundreds of foreign fighters the president has released over the years. Mr. Obama rationalizes that the prison is a recruiting tool for terrorists. More accurately, America’s very existence is a recruiting tool for terrorists, and the president’s job is to defend the nation.
The commander in chief has grudgingly conceded that a few bitter captives might return to violence, describing it in law enforcement terms as a recidivism problem rather than a national security issue related to warfare. Officially, 117 inmates of 653 had returned to the battlefield as of late July, or about 18 percent, and unofficial sources say the actual number is 30 percent. “The president is right at the intersection of willful blindness and outright lying,” says John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
No one takes pleasure in the ordeal Sgt. Bergdahl suffered at the hands of the Taliban, but he brought the misery on himself by abandoning his fellow soldiers and his country. The Pentagon’s decision to reject the president’s happy spin on the Bergdahl case and charge the soldier with desertion is a rare instance in which politics as usual shattered against the immutable foundation of military esprit de corps. Honor still means something.
In earlier times, the punishment for desertion on the battlefield included punishment by a firing squad. If convicted, Sgt. Bergdahl’s penalty, whatever it may be, will be light in comparison. The confusion that drove him to go over the hill and consort with the enemy led him to betray the trust of his brothers-in-arms. Greater shame hath no man.