Thursday, June 05, 2014

Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

I am appalled and disgusted by the furor that has blown up over the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  The flap began when people started complaining that President Obama shouldn't have traded 5 top Taliban leaders for him.  I put that down to the fact that if President Obama were responsible for the sunrise, the Republican and Tea Party idiots would refuse to get up in the morning.

Now we have a whole load of manure dumping on Sgt. Bergdahl and his family and his neighbors, based on what looked to me like an unsupported set of rumors that he had deserted his post and therefore didn't "deserve" to be brought home because men died searching for him.  His home town has had to cancel a homecoming celebration because the Internet trolls have flooded the town with threatening emails and letters.

My first response was to say, we don't even know who these people are who are saying this, since the Internet is full of anonymous trolls.  Today, however, the New York Times editorial board published a detailed analysis of the situation, The Rush to Demonize Sgt. Berdahl, in which they say they've established that yes, the accusers were in Berdahl's unit.  But read this excerpt (read the whole thing, but especially this):
"Republican operatives have arranged for soldiers in his unit to tell reporters that he was a deserter who cost the lives of several soldiers searching for him. In fact, a review of casualty reports by Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren of The Times showed there is no clear link between any military deaths and the search."
And a classified military report shows that Sergeant Bergdahl had walked away from assigned areas at least twice before and had returned, according to a report in The Times on Thursday. It describes him as a free-spirited young man who asked many questions but gave no indication of being a deserter, let alone the turncoat that Mr. Obama’s opponents are now trying to create. 
If anything, the report suggests that the army unit’s lack of security and discipline was as much to blame for the disappearance, given the sergeant’s history.
We're all sadly used to the fact that on the Internet, you're guilty if anybody says you are, no matter the actual facts and no matter whether you know who the accusers are or not.  But the NY Times account raises an even nastier set of suppositions.  In my studies of military history, the U.S. military has always made every effort to bring missing soldiers home, even if all they could find was bones (and, as the Times points out, even if the soldiers had in fact deserted before being captured).  Ask the people still looking for remains in the jungles of Vietnam.  But here we have a man who walks away from camp and is captured - and 5 years later the men he served with accuse him of desertion and say or imply that he shouldn't have been rescued.  If you follow the link about the Republican operatives arranging the interviews, you'll find that some people didn't like him because he "wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds.”  Apparently his "buddies" found it particularly offensive that he was trying to learn Dari and Arabic and Pashto.

What happened to the concept that the soldiers in the units had each other's backs?  In today's army, do the guys in the unit have your back only if they like you??  How do you ensure unit cohesion under fire if your "buddies" are willing to dump on you for no obvious reason?  I don't know that's what was going on, but from what the Times has unearthed, I think we have to ask the questions.

If the Army thinks there's cause to suspect he deserted, let's have a court-martial. Let's get witnesses under oath and have a decision made by a military judge, and find out what happened.  This has gotten so bad that nothing but the facts will clear it up, if it's still possible to establish what the facts are.

When I was growing up I was taught that you are innocent until proven guilty.  Sadly, even in our courts that's no longer true.  But if we reach a point where you are guilty when social media - or mass media, a lot of this is coming from Fox News - say you are, we are in even worse case than I feared.


  1. Hedera:

    I think the crux of this is that his fellow soldiers believed that he had become disloyal, or perhaps too flakey to be trusted. The "got your back" spirit would have been broken at that point.

    Unit cohesion is not a fixed characteristic quality. It differs from soldier to soldier, unit to unit. Soldiers aren't uniform automatons. What's perfectly obvious here is that he'd become unreliable and no longer believed in the mission. Under those circumstances, it's up to the unit commander to address the problem, and remove him from active involvement in field duties. It sounds very much as if he wandered off, half delusional, and then was captured by the Taliban. One description suggests that he'd run out of provisions and was prostrate.

    Republicans want to seize on any opening they can and blow it up out of proportion. Benghazi has become a tiresome harangue, which most Americans have grown entirely weary of. The Bergdahl trade will become another of these, because the Republicans, having lost their biggest issue (jobs and the economy), have nothing else to carp about.

    I just hope we don't end up with a Southern Hispanic who will open the floodgates of illegal immigration with a new wave of amnesties.

  2. You're perfectly right about unit cohesion. What disturbed me greatly about the whole account was the suggestion that the other soldiers didn't like him because he wasn't like them, he didn't "hang out with the guys." Having spent much of my early life as the weird girl the cool kids didn't want to associate with, I have a lot of sympathy for someone who is excluded because the "cool kids" don't understand or like him.

    It isn't at all obvious to me that he'd "become unstable and no longer believed in the mission," and I think the fact that his unit commander did not remove him from field duties argues against that - unless you're assuming that the unit commander wasn't on top of his team. It does appear to me that Bergdahl was willing to ask more questions than maybe are common among lower rank military people. And remember - he got promoted to sergeant, we aren't talking about a buck private here.

    I stand by my statement that we won't know what really went on unless there is a formal investigation, which may or may not include a court martial.