In every war there are inevitably soldiers who are captured, kidnapped or otherwise taken prisoner by the enemy. Some become POWs due to circumstances beyond their control while others behave in ways that, for whatever reason, seem to deliberately invite their capture. We don't know which occurred in the case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared from his post in eastern Afghanistan six years ago under mysterious circumstances. Nevertheless, the Army's announcement Wednesday that Mr. Bergdahl may soon be tried on charges of desertion and other misbehavior is troubling.
The basic facts of the case are not in dispute. One the night of June 30, 2009, Mr. Bergdahl, then a private first class, went missing near the town of Yahya Kheyl in Paktika Province, where his unit was conducting counter-terrorism operations. Two weeks later the Taliban released a propaganda video announcing Mr. Bergdahl's capture, in which he claimed that he was taken prisoner after falling behind his patrol. Later Taliban videos showed him in combat uniform and helmet, saying he was being treated well by his captors and pleading for the release of dozens of Afghan prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Mr. Bergdahl was finally freed last year after the White House agreed to release five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo. On his return to the U.S. he told Army investigators he had spent much of his time as a POW in a darkened room chained to his bed inside a metal cage after two unsuccessful attempts at escape in 2010 and 2011. Neither attempt lasted more than a few days, and Mr. Bergdahl claimed that both times he was punished afterward by being tortured, beaten and starved. The Geneva Conventions are supposed to ensure humane treatment for POWs, but in practice they are often ignored.
Army officials apparently continued to view Mr. Bergdahl as a POW rather than as a deserter well after his disappearance and a failed effort to find him in 2009. He was promoted in absentia to specialist the following year, and in 2011 he was promoted again to the rank of sergeant. It is difficult to imagine why the military would have continued to bestow increasingly higher ranks on someone if it truly believed he had betrayed his country by going over to the enemy.
The controversy over Mr. Bergdahl's release didn't come to the forefront of public attention until after his return last year, when some soldiers in his unit claimed he had deliberately walked off his post to protest the war in Afghanistan. Mr. Bergdahl apparently had complained to some of the men in his unit about what he saw as the shabby treatment meted out to Afghan civilians by U.S. commanders and his general contempt for a military hierarchy he saw as arrogant and incompetent. We'll be eager to see what other evidence the military has; soldiers have been grumbling since time immemorial about the supposed cluelessness of the military's higher-ups without actually turning traitor.
At the same time, a more serious source of controversy came from Republican critics of the Obama administration, who charged the White House acted illegally in freeing the Guantanamo detainees without notifying Congress. The president countered that he was well within his authority to swap those prisoners for Mr. Bergdahl's release, but the ensuing brouhaha had the unfortunate effect of politicizing the issue of exactly what happened to Mr. Bergdahl the night he vanished and confounding it with Washington's partisan political agenda. It would be a tragedy if the military allowed itself to be drawn into taking sides in that dispute.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Bergdahl case has been the suggestion that the U.S. shouldn't even have tried to secure Mr. Bergdahl's release given the questions surrounding the circumstances of his capture. If adopted, such a policy would destroy morale in the armed services with its implication that the military could write off its obligations to U.S. soldiers held as POWs simply by calling them deserters. That would overturn more than a century of tradition that holds Americans never leave their own behind. Even if we assume the worst about Mr. Bergdahl, it was still the right call to bring him back. Punishing deserters is not a job we should outsource to the Taliban.