No, Prisoner-of-War Bowe Bergdahl Did Not Get Americans Killed

Frustration trumps fair thinking where possible deserter is concerned


On June 30, 2009, U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Bowe Bergdahl apparently walked away from his platoon’s encampment in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan.

That is to say, Bergdahl may have deserted. Captured by the Taliban, he spent nearly five years in captivity.

U.S. and Qatari officials negotiated Bergdahl’s release on May 31, swapping the emaciated American captive for five suspected terrorists in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And now some soldiers and military families are blaming 28-year-old Bergdahl for the deaths of as many as eight Americans in Afghanistan during the military’s initial efforts to find and retrieve Bergdahl.

They’re wrong. And shame on them for heaping scorn on a man who undoubtedly has suffered enough for any crime he may have committed.

“It gets really hurtful when I think, this guy was worth my son’s life? My son who was patriotic? Who was a true soldier? Who defended his country with his life?” Sondra Andrews told Army Times.

Andrews’ son 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, a member of Bergdahl’s battalion from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, died in a bomb and rocket attack on Sept. 4, 2009 while patrolling a village near where Bergdahl disappeared.

Former 501st PIR trooper Nathan Bradley Bethea has listed seven other regiment soldiers he claims died because of Bergdahl. Among other counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism missions, the men were looking for Bergdahl and his captors when the Taliban attacked with small arms, rockets and bombs.

But Bergdahl did not kill these men. The Taliban killed them. Just as the Taliban, other armed groups, accidents and disease have claimed the lives of 2,218 other American service members in and around Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

I suspect blaming Bergdahl only feels right for some people because there’s a chance the government could prosecute Bergdahl for desertion—and little chance he could adequately defend himself before an unforgiving justice system. And even if the government chooses not to call a court-martial, we at least can destroy the man in the media.

Bowe Bergdahl, left. Taliban video capture

We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp. Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man.

By contrast, it’s much harder for everyday Americans to inflict satisfying punishment on the Taliban. The Taliban is a determined, brutal, patient and deadly enemy. Its fighters understand the political, physical and psychic terrain on which they fight far better than we ever understood it.

They beat us in a war of our choosing. Hate them for it, if you think it helps. But don’t blame their victory, and our losses, on Bergdahl.

True, Americans died while on operations that directly and indirectly supported the military’s prolonged efforts to find Bergdahl. But that doesn’t mean soldiers would not have died if Bergdahl had not wandered off.

2009 was the beginning of a years-long escalation of the U.S. and allied war effort. Tens of thousands more troops deployed to Afghanistan’s restive eastern and southern regions. They patrolled more aggressively. They died more frequently.

Two hundred and ninety-five coalition troops died in Afghanistan in 2008. Five hundred and twenty-one died in 2009. More than 700 perished in 2010. Bergdahl’s regiment was going to fight—and suffer casualties—regardless of whether planners tailored the unit’s operations to help gather intelligence on Bergdahl’s whereabouts.

In fact, if you’re willing to blame Bergdahl for soldiers’ deaths, then you also have to attribute to him all the lives he “saved.” The slight shift in operations that reportedly occurred because of Bergdahl almost certainly kept U.S. units off of some remote roads and out of certain enemy-controlled villages. Attacks did not take place that might have otherwise.

Owing to the modest warping effect of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the war—a ravenous and random killer—tapped some men for death and spared others. But any other circumstances could have done the same.

Rain falls heavier than forecast. A dirt road collapses. A patrol must divert. It dodges one pre-planned Taliban ambush but runs headlong into another. The rockets strike the second truck instead of the first one. Some men live. Others die.

Do we blame the rain? The rain didn’t pull the trigger. Neither did Bergdahl.

What was the alternative to searching for the wayward private? Leaving him to the Taliban? I expect our armed forces to try to rescue any American in insurgent captivity, even if that American is a coward. Or mentally troubled. Or a jerk. Or even a deserter.

I suspect that deep down, most Americans share that expectation. We don’t abandon the Bowe Bergdahls of the world because trying to find them is dangerous. Especially when not trying to find them is probably equally dangerous.

David Axe’s new book Shadow Wars is out. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.