Bowe Bergdahl, an ethical dilemma for America

Story highlights

  • The bizarre story of Bowe Bergdahl took another turn when a general ordered a full court-martial
  • Frida Ghitis: It seems America was right in keeping its oath to bring all its soldiers home

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The bizarre story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl took yet another unlikely turn on Monday when Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, rejected the recommendation of the officer overseeing the Bergdahl case and ordered a full court-martial.

Bergdahl now risks spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted on charges of deserting and endangering his fellow soldiers.
The daunting prospect comes only three months after another high-ranking officer, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, advised precisely the opposite, saying it would be "inappropriate" to impose any jail time on the central figure in one the strangest military sagas in recent U.S. military history.
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    For many years, the Bergdahl case was the subject of anguished speculation. Few people, if any, understood how or why it was that the American soldier ended up spending five years a captive of the feared Haqqanis, a network affiliated with the Taliban, before he was traded for five top-level Taliban chiefs, America's prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
    Now, Bergdahl is telling his story in his own words with his own voice. Last Thursday, just days before the latest ruling, the acclaimed podcast "Serial" started releasing its new season, starring Bowe Bergdahl.
    The latest development in the case will provide material for years of military ethics courses, as well as civics and justice classes. As we get more facts the question re-emerges: What should America have done?
    I believe the preponderance of factors in this dilemma -- a wrenching one without doubt -- leads us to conclude that, for the most part, the government did the right thing. The government was right to save the soldier, and is also right to put him on trial.
    With his lawyers' blessing -- and in what clearly is part of his legal strategy -- Bergdahl is telling his story. Bergdahl reportedly has been in talks with screenwriter Mark Boal about making a movie of his unquestionably cinematic story. But his legal team apparently hopes that by revealing the details of his misadventure at this stage of the process through "Serial," he may help bring a more favorable court-martial outcome. Perhaps Bergdahl just wants some understanding. Or, maybe, given what he told his interviewer, there's still a part of him that wants to play the hero instead of the infuriating fool.
    From the moment Bergdahl disappeared, there were complicated and confusing questions, not just about what happened but about what the U.S. should have done. His comrades said he simply walked off the base where he was posted in a dangerous area of Afghanistan; some called him a deserter, others a traitor.
    That six men in his unit died in the ensuing months (whether his disappearance directly or indirectly led to those deaths is disputed) added to the moral complications of the case.
    When the U.S. announced a deal to free him, there was bitter debate about whether the government should have exchanged anyone, much less five valuable and potentially dangerous prisoners, for a man who shirked his duty. That contentious disagreement continues today.
    Bergdahl was not charged with treason. He did not leave to join or to help the enemy. He left because he was immature, perhaps delusional, and most certainly foolish. Bergdahl himself admits what he did was "stupid."
    The Obama administration did the wrong thing by praising Bergdahl and saying he served "honor and distinction." It was a mistake for the President to honor the family with a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House when Bergdahl's release was announced. And it's difficult to avoid the impression that the United States did not drive a very hard bargain with the captors; that the negotiations gave away too much, freeing the five Taliban to a luxurious and only temporarily restricted exile in Qatar.
    Those errors aside, the U.S. was correct in upholding the sacred commitment to "leave no man behind," even if Bergdahl's predicament was his own fault. If he had betrayed his country to join the enemy, no trade should have been made. But Bergdahl was deluded and irresponsible. He was not a traitor. (Whether his departure from base qualifies as desertion or a less serious one-day AWOL will be a matter for the trial.)
    In the "Serial" podcast, Bergdahl speaks to Boal, the producer and writer of the war films "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," and explains that when he left his post he had planned to get word to superiors off-base to raise the alert about leadership failures in his unit. In his "Serial" telling, he said he wanted to trigger a search, a so-called DUSTWUN search ("duty status whereabouts unknown") that would bring his unit to the attention of higher-ups.
    Revealing the stunning immaturity that motivated his disastrous scheme, he said he had thoughts of emulating a fictional spy-hero from action movies. He said he imagined he could be like, "I don't know, Jason Bourne..." He said, "I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing."
    But the plan quickly fell apart. Just minutes after walking away unarmed he says he realized he had made a big mistake. He got lost in the mountains and was captured by men armed with AK-47s and taken prisoner for five excruciating years. The military says he was tortured, and he described extreme emotional suffering during his captivity.
    Bergdahl's motivation was more than the stuff of adolescent dreams of heroism. In a gripping profile by the late Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings, we learned of his final email from Afghanistan to his parents, where he wrote "The future is too good to waste on lies," and complained of the "self-righteous arrogance" of his army superiors. "It is all revolting," he told them. His father, Bob Bergdahl, responded in caps, "OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE."
    Years later, Bob Bergdahl and his wife, Jani, stood at the White House, embraced by the President, hearing the happy news that Bowe was coming home.
    As Hastings showed, Bob and Jani raised and educated their son in isolation, with little interaction with the "real" world, but with heavy doses of ethics education.
    In the end, the Bergdahl family's idealism may just have misfired in the real-life conflict zone, or perhaps military recruiters failed to spot a young man without the necessary maturity for his mission. Ultimately, it might have been the war-zone situation that deteriorated his judgment. Whatever the cause, Bergdahl endured and indirectly inflicted additional heartache in a war that has already inflicted much pain.
    The most difficult moral questions can never be answered with complete, unremitting certainty.
    But given the evidence we have heard, it seems America was right in keeping its oath to bring all its soldiers home, even the foolish ones. By doing that America preserved its own integrity; it reaffirmed its commitment to other members of the military.
    But Bergdahl must, as he should, still face justice. This strange saga is far from over.