On Jan. 31, 1945, the U.S. Army executed a soldier from Detroit named Eddie Slovik. He was what we would now call a loser –a petty thief, a self-proclaimed coward and, by his admission, a deserter. He was the first U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War and, as far as I can tell, the last. He soon became the subject of a book and a movie – and then slipped into history, ignominious and pathetic in death and now almost entirely forgotten.
Now, all these years later, deserters are treated somewhat differently. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is accused by some of his Army colleagues of deserting his post in Afghanistan, leaving behind his weapon and his body armor. He was taken prisoner by the Taliban and was just swapped for five terrorists who were being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If the charges are true, the Taliban got back valuable and esteemed warriors and the United States got a deserter.
The ultimate truth about Bergdahl has yet to be determined. War is foggy, or some such thing, and not all eyewitness accounts are accurate – you know the cliches. But there seems to be ample evidence to wonder about Bergdahl and to particularly wonder why his parents were invited to the White House, where they engaged in a huggy session with the president of the United States. I am not for executing deserters, but I am not for hugging their parents, either.
The Obama administration’s mismanagement of this event truly has to be a personal best for the president and his staff. They are accused of violating the American principle of never trading for a hostage. This sounds ominous, but in truth you do what you have to do to get your people back. I give Obama a pass on this one.
The administration is also accused of violating the law by not notifying Congress that a swap was in the offing. This is a more serious charge since the law is the law and ought to be obeyed. Still, there is a long and proud tradition of the White House telling Congress to shove off when it comes to the management of foreign affairs — and this is yet another example. Hearings will be held and then sleep will be resumed.
But the Rose Garden production sticks in my craw – Obama leaving with his arms around Bergdahl’s mother and father. So touching. So warm. So utterly repellent! Did the president know that their son was being accused of desertion? Did he care? As commander in chief, did he ponder what he owed the many millions of soldiers who were also scared or fed up with war – but did not allegedly amble off? Did he consider how Bergdahl’s platoon was exposed and what could happen to the men who went out in search of him?
Truly, I find it necessary to have retrieved Bergdahl … in some way. The freeing of five killers of Americans as part of the deal bothers me, but maybe there was no other way. But I am even more bothered, though, that the president and his incautious mouthpiece Susan Rice – she said Bergdahl served “with honor and distinction” — turned what had to be a sordid but possibly necessary deal into a virtual patriotic exercise. It was fundamentally a lie. It was frankly sickening.