THE BLOG

Bowe Bergdahl and the War

07/14/2014 06:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014

Bowe Bergdahl is a subject of considerable controversy. An American soldier who wandered off from his base in Afghanistan and got captured by the Taliban, after five years American officials secured his release by trading him for five Taliban captives being held in Guantanamo. At first the reception was joyous, with plans for a lavish homecoming. After the circumstances of his meanderings, of failed search efforts that cost casualties, and of the trade for terrorists became public, the public turned powerfully on him, branding him a traitor.

The best article I've read on this complex story was a recent piece in the Army Times by Lawrence Korb. Korb was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

To explain what happened, Korb feels certain questions have to be answered: given that Bergdahl had wandered off several times before over an extended period, why was he assigned to a front line war zone? Even more fundamental, why was he accepted into the United States Army when the French Foreign Legion turned him down and the U.S. Coast Guard discharged him for psychological reasons after just 20 days of basic training? Finally, why did local leadership in his outfit permit this to happen when there were clear warning signs?

Korb believes "the answers are hidden in plain sight." As the war ground on, and it became clear it was fought under false premises, it became harder to recruit volunteers for the military, and they drastically lowered their standards. Between 2004 and 2007 the armed forces granted 125,000 moral waivers, including to people with serious misdemeanor and felony convictions. Even more relevant to this story, "the services drastically lowered their medical and aptitude requirements, including for psychological issues. By 2007, shortly before Bergdahl enlisted, the Army was granting waivers to nearly a third of its recruits."

There are other implications to this trend. Standards of promotion for officers also got lowered, so they had less ability and less training as well; "low-scoring officers who normally would have left the services were retained and promoted. Consequently, the quality of leadership declined."

I can testify to the accuracy of these statements. Around this time an acquaintance of mine went through basic training. In his unit there was one man who was clearly developmentally disabled, with difficulty completing the simplest task. Despite these obvious deficits, he was still passed through. When I asked what his MOS was, I figured they assigned him to some non-taxing yet essential duty such as laundry detail. In today's Army the old low-rung assignment, the infantry, is now the top of the heap, with the highest physical standards and some technical expertise required. Thus I was shocked when I learned that they assigned him as a foot soldier. When the going gets tough, they still need fodder.

Next, the all-volunteer military was built on the premise that the force could be kept comparatively small, supported by a well-trained reserve component. If we became involved in a prolonged conflict, however, the government would have to activate selective service, especially for the Army, with its greatest manpower needs. In this case, however, such a move would have sparked far greater opposition to a war already illegitimate, so "the Bush administration punted and sent unprepared units like that of Sgt. Bergdahl into battle."

Korb feels that the Army should definitely conduct an Article 32 investigation to determine whether court-martial charges should be brought, keeping in mind that over the past decade 15,000 men and women in our armed services have also gone absent without leave. While he agrees that, "Bergdahl is certainly responsible for his own actions," we should also "hold accountable the civilian and military leaders who lowered the standards for enlistment, promoted people who did not deserve to be in the service, and who mislead and mismanaged the war efforts."

Makes sense to me.