10 June, 2014

Swift Bowe-ting

Bowe Bergdahl may or may not be a hero, but to hear the reactionaries tell it, he is definitely a deserter and possibly a traitor. Note the rush to judgment. Sargent Bergdahl has not had any chance to hear the accusations against him much less confront his accusers. Prominent conservative politicians, right-wing talkers, and reactionary bloggers are stampeding to heap scorn on this American soldier.

Whatever Sargent Bergdahl’s status is ultimately determined to be, he is an American citizen and a member of our armed forces. He should not be virtually lynched in public by partisans so fervently seeking an angle of attack on the president that they cannot restrain themselves. The man has been subject to the tender mercies of the Taliban for five years. This could not have been either pleasant or easy. It was what almost every American would, I’ll wager, consider an ordeal. As is his right, he will be debriefed and may have his day in court.  Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice the following pertains:

Presumption of Innocence
Under our legal system, everyone is presumed innocent until a court finds them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A court may make a fair and just decision only after it has heard all the evidence relating to the guilt or innocence of an accused.

This is the equivalent of the normal order of operation in the civilian legal system. Consequently, Sargent Bergdahl should be welcomed home and the proper procedures should be allowed to run their due course. Let us catch our breaths and find it with in our minds and hearts to live up to our civic ideals in the case of this returning soldier. If we cannot do this, then what exactly is Sargent Bergdahl and all his brothers and sisters in uniform supposed to be fighting for?

Obama said, “Let me just make a simple point here: regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.” This is not something the president just made up for this particular case; it is one of the most enduring and honored precepts of American military conduct. Why is it a cause of outrage in this instance? Here’s a hint. It is not truly because of Sargent Bergdahl or the five Taliban members exchanged for him.

“The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and UCMJ, Article 10, guarantee the right to a speedy trial. The accused soldier has the right to be advised of the charges against him as early as possible. Normally, the accused must come to trial within 120 days of either arrest or preferral of charges, whichever is earlier.” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/army/fm/27-1/Ch1.htm                 Sargent Bergdahl was debilitated when he was returned, so he has hardly been in a condition to participate in the rebuttal of charges against him if any are preferred. Nonetheless, he and every member of our armed forces should not be charged, let alone, tried, convicted, or sentenced through a partisan incited media maelstrom.

Taliban delegates, with whom U.S. officials negotiated in Qatar over the fate of Sgt. Bergdahl, represent a political faction and a military force in Afghanistan; they are enemy combatants, not terrorists. The Taliban are fanatical; their ideals are benighted; their practices are abhorrent. They are oppressors of those under their power and our bitter adversaries, but they are not terrorists. Before the Americans drove the Taliban from power, they were the rulers of Afghanistan. The United States is still fighting a war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are our enemies in that war. Bergdahl was not a “hostage”. He was a prisoner of war, and what happened on May 31 was an exchange of POWs. Now that Sargent Bergdahl is recovered from captivity, his rights and responsibilities as an American citizen and service member kick in in full force.

The Bergdahl family endured five years of dreadful stress while their son was a prisoner of war. We owe them empathy and goodwill now that Bowe is in the process of returning to the United States. The attacks on this family, especially the father, show the viciousness of which hyperpartisans are capable. One has gone so far as to claim, Bowe’s father “claimed the White House for Allah.” This preposterous claim was based on the opening remark Bob Bergdahl made which included a Pashto phrase: Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem which means In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah is the Arabic word for God; it is not a name. Therefore, simply think “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” This formulation would have evoked no outrage whatsoever.

The reactionaries are gleefully broadcasting accusations of desertion against Bowe Bergdahl. This is shameful for a number of reasons. First, desertion is a very specific charge under U.S. military law. It is not a charge that is made lightly and it is not a charge that is proven easily. “As former Judge Advocate General Lawyer and South Texas College of Law professor Geoffrey Corn,” a conviction for desertion under military law requires very specific, narrow criteria be met. “The prosecutor would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bergdahl ‘quit his unit with intent to remain absent permanently.’” That intent would have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Even an AWOL conviction is not assured.  Conviction for AWOL only requires proof that a soldier left his unit without permission. Because of the time that has elapsed, however, it would be difficult to piece together interviews of members of Bergdahl’s unit to definitively describe circumstances of his leaving.

Furthermore, conviction on any charge comes only after a person is charged. Thus, far Sargent Bergdahl has not been charged with anything. He was never designated as a deserter or taken off of the army's rolls. In fact, he was promoted to sergeant in absentia. This action hardly seems likely toward a person the army considered a villain in any substantive manner. The allegations and assertions roiling about in the media and on the Internet are bereft of evidentiary substance and due process that pertain to criminal prosecution. As Americans, all of us have a civic and ethical duty to resist a rush to judgment. The recurrent failure of some many to fulfill these duties has not rescinded them. Our fellow American deserves respect for his full panoply of civil rights under both military law and our foundational ideals.

Letting this shrieking frenzy go uncontested does severe harm to this soldier and his family. He is finally safe and hopefully recovering. What possible justification can there be for the fury that has followed his return? Whatever he did or did not do, he deserves the chance to regain his strength, find his bearings, and make strides toward normalcy. Furthermore, libeling and slandering him and his family are deplorable actions especially when they are done largely to camouflage political attacks on President Obama. Over and above all the other factors that are wrong with the reactionary response to Sargent Bergdahl’s return, the transparent ulterior motivation adds insult to the potential injury. 

One of the most severe aspersions cast on Sargent Bergdahl is the allegation that his departure caused others to die trying to recover him. The problem with this is it does not seem to conform to the evidence. On June 3, 2014, the New York Times reported:

“A review of the database of casualties in the Afghan war suggests that Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics appear to be blaming him for every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance.”

The main search for Sargent Bergdahl lasted 8 days and ended on 8 July 2009. “No one on this assignment was officially pronounced as a casualty during its tenure, nor, ultimately, at any point in time.”  Nearly two months later, “two members of Third Platoon lost their lives (Bergdahl was with Second Platoon), and rank and file service personnel of Second Platoon apparently believed that Third Platoon's mission at the time involved the search for Sergeant Bergdahl. But this is not confirmed by official records. Considering that the official search period concluded almost two months before these deaths, reliable sources say it is unlikely that they happened due to any attempt to recover Sargent Bergdahl.

Another vehement objection raised is that the five Taliban members freed from Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst.” This seems debatable in that they were never charged during their years of incarceration. Considering the fact that in August of 2008,  “A military jury today found Salim Ahmed Hamdan Osama bin Laden’s driver,  guilty of material support for terrorism but innocent of conspiracy charges,’” how bad could these five have been if they were never even  charged with anything?

Even by the debased standards of 21st century American political discourse, the tirades following Sargent Bergdahl’s return have been disgraceful. “U.S. officials secured the release of an American prisoner of war and for much of the right; the first instinct was to condemn the president. The second instinct was to smear the prisoner and the third instinct was to vilify the prisoner’s dad as a Muslim covert and veritable traitor.” In the ceaseless effort by reactionaries to discredit the president.

If one thinks the “ceaseless effort” descriptor is excessive, consider these comments by U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey who contended President Obama had the Constitutional authority to make the exchange for Sargent Bergdahl: “"He broke the law, but I believe that the law itself is unconstitutional," Mukasey said, referring to Obama's apparent failure to give Congress 30 days' notice before approving the prisoner exchange "Article II [of the U.S. Constitution] makes him commander in chief of the armed forces. These people were in the custody of the armed forces. "It's [the law] unconstitutional, and Obama said so at the time that he signed it."  Nevertheless, Mukasey suggested that Congress could still impeach the president for agreeing to release five Taliban prisoners of war in exchange for Bergdahl, saying that “elected officials do not need to commit crimes to be impeached.” Astonishing as it should be, Mr. Mukasey is wrong.  “The Constitution sets specific grounds for impeachment. They are “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” To be impeached and removed from office, the House and Senate must find that the official committed one of these acts.” Neither facts nor fairness impede the reactionary hate campaign against the president as this disinformation from a Republican former Attorney General proves.

Infamous, venomous, hyperbolic mendacity is routine for the reactionaries among us, but they have plunged to new depths in this latest effort.  The agitation ginned up toward Sargent Bergdahl and thus the president, harms the country and the body politic. Those inciting this rapacious indignation do not care in the slightest about the harm they do. For them, the only considerations are TV ratings and potential political advantage.  As a resident of Sargent Bergdahl’s hometown rightly observes: “Fox has been horrible. I'm a conservative but I'm disgusted by how they're trashing him,” said Lee Ann Ferris, an interior designer who lives near the Bergdahls’ wood cabin five miles out of town. “It's a modern-day lynch mob.

As long as there are rating points and election votes to be gained, media demagogues and political opportunists will push and publicize poisonous allegations and alarmist speculations. It is up to truly patriotic, decent Americans to denounce these manipulations and machinations. The quality of our civilization is dependent on the benevolence and sanity of our politics. The quality of our politics in turn depends on our general willingness to constructively participate and resolutely demand that the common good is its abiding objective and genuine civility is its enduring spirit.

The people who volunteer for America’s armed services and go into harm’s way deserve better. The Republic to which the vast majority of us repeatedly vowed allegiance deserves better. The children in whose name and interest we must preserve all that makes America a promise rather than a plague deserve better. Whatever duly empowered authorities ultimately determine, we must rally to the defense of Sargent Bergdahl and his family, lest grave harm be inflicted America due to mob action toward him. How the saga of Sargent Bergdahl plays out will tell far more about us and the land we claim to love than it will about him. Let us stand up for what makes America deserving of admiration around the world and ensure that history will judge our deeds to have been of the highest caliber.

A good start to assuring that we are well remembered would be to heed President Obama’s words from the video that follows.


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