By Ashley Dennee
Bowe, the man
Popular understanding of Bowe Bergdahl is that he was a solitary man, uninterested in engaging with his fellow soldiers on a personal level. He would rather have kept to himself and studied Afghanistan—including all three languages spoken there—than have a beer or BBQ with his unit. While his disillusionment with the army is widely known, what is surprising is that this solitary man was not the Bowe known to those from his hometown of Hailey, Idaho. Bergdahl’s friends report him being bold and fun loving, constantly challenging himself and looking for his next adventure.
Bowe’s seemingly dichotomous personality is a crucial aspect of his disappearance and the uproar over the response.
The circumstances under which Bowe disappeared in 2009 have been, in a word, contentious. Claims surfaced that he fell behind on patrol, while others believed he was ambushed. It has come to light more recently that he voluntarily walked away from his post one night. After midnight, Bowe left camp and wandered into Afghan territory. Leaving a note mentioning his disillusionment and saying that he no longer supported U.S. efforts in the region, he left to start a new life, taking with him necessary survival materials such as food and water, but leaving all weapons behind.
Soldiers were sent out to look for Bergdahl, two dying in the process from enemy fire. When the truth emerged that Bowe had left willingly, many soldiers labelled him a deserter, and resentment grew. One of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers believed he was looking for an adventure "without having anybody to answer to" when he left his post.
The U.S. agreed to release five Taliban detainees in exchange for Bowe, whose health appeared to be failing last year. While many in the U.S. are in uproar over the government allegedly negotiating with terrorists, Chuck Hagel referred to the exchange as one of Prisoners of War. Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Forces on Saturday, May 28 in a quick and smooth exchange.
Now, many of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers are calling on Congress to press charges and hold the deserter responsible for his actions. While some—including the Obama administration—claim that it is the duty of the U.S. to bring its soldiers home regardless of circumstances, others argue that he should not be rewarded for walking away.
As far as Bowe Bergdahl is personally concerned, his actions were irresponsible, thoughtless and endangered the soldiers in his unit. He left camp willingly. He only took necessary survival tools. He left a note explaining his reasoning. He clearly understood what he was doing and knew that soldiers would be sent out to look for him. Could he predict that two would die? No. But the fact that Bergdahl deserted his regiment is reason enough for him to stand trial.
With that said, the wider question of U.S. response remains. Was it the right thing to do to bring a deserter home, and should he stand trial? While his five years in captivity would seem to suggest that he paid for his crime, no one is quite sure of how he ended up in Taliban captivity. Did he see it as yet another adventure, or was he legitimately taken against his will? While the latter is unlikely, his disregard for safety procedures put in place and his determination to seek out his next adrenaline rush landed him in hot water that the U.S. was not responsible for getting him out of.
While the administration’s line has consistently been that the U.S. does not leave men behind, there must be some type of reprimand from either the government or the army itself. By leaving base and wandering into the Afghan wilderness, Bowe Bergdahl put other men and women’s lives in danger and wasted valuable time and resources. Had he not been captured, he would be standing trial for his deliberate decision to go AWOL. His capture, while unfortunate, does not and should not exempt him from being judged by a jury of his peers.
For now, Bowe Bergdahl is still recovering, both physically and mentally. Once he is home, he will simultaneously be the most beloved and the most hated man in America, depending on who you ask.
Ashley Dennee is a Communications and Public Policy Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York.