Bowe Bergdahl and the Controversy of Desertion: casualties, cowards or victims?

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of German-occupied Normandy, we remember the brave men that gave their lives in an ultimately successful crusade against a daunting enemy. It is ironic that remembrance for this collective feat of heroism comes in the same week as the controversial release of Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity.

The heroism of D-Day has been immortalised in picture and on film
The heroism of D-Day has been immortalised in picture and on film

The controversy over the Bergdahl exchange – for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay – rumbles on in the USA, as does the debate over whether Bergdahl should be welcomed home despite likely being a deserter.

Desertion is a sensitive subject. Another poignant anniversary this year, the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, has further raised the issue of deserters. A recent BBC study looked at Thomas Highgate, the first British solider to be shot for desertion during WWI. The circumstances surrounding his apparent flight on the 6th September 1914 remain sketchy, yet he was quickly convicted of cowardice and shot on the morning of the 8th. Whether he merited execution is a contentious and emotive issue.

The question casualty, coward or victim? seems appropriate to most desertions and people’s opinions will diverge wildly. Can we really criticize a human being for deserting when we ourselves have no experience of front-line battle?

Like with most desertions, the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance are hazy
Like with most desertions, the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance are hazy

Both during WWI and WWII, desertions increased as the fighting got more bloody and the number of conscripts rose within the army ranks. Indeed, one may ask the question whether conscript deserters should be treated with greater lenience than those men that enlisted? Those that volunteered for active service during the World Wars, and those that enlist willingly in armies around the globe today, could face greater accusation for desertion: ‘you signed up for this, so no wimping out now!’

A hanged German deserter in 1945. Such ruthless reprisals were supposed to scare soldiers into holding the line against Soviet advances
A hanged German deserter in 1945. Such ruthless reprisals were supposed to scare soldiers into holding the line against Soviet advances

Whatever your view of Bergdahl, one must also consider what punishment he may already have suffered during five years in Taliban captivity. Surely such a sentence for dereliction of duty is punishment enough? Perhaps the man should be allowed to vanish into anonymity, rightfully shorn of hero status yet not castigated as a national traitor.

Rather than dwell on the issue, we would do well to remember those men who stormed the Normandy beaches 70 years ago, and the countless millions of others who have given their lives for causes that they may not have believed in, yet died to uphold.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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