Conflict & Justice

The released POW Bowe Bergdahl might be investigated as a deserter

On Wednesday the Taliban released a video showing the moment an American soldier was released from captivity.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

In the video you can see a Taliban fighter speak to Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl just before he's whisked off by a waiting US helicopter.

The fighter warns him: don't come back to Afghanistan. Next time, you won't get out alive.

The US Army is investigating just how Bergdahl ended up being captured five years ago. A former comrade has told news outlets Bergdahl was disillusioned with the war, and talked of “walking to China.” The Pentagon is contemplating a formal desertion investigation.

It'll be a while before we know exactly what happened. But this would not be the first time returning POWs have gotten in trouble with the military brass.

In 1965 a 19-year-old Marine named Bobby Garwood, went missing from his base at Da Nang in South Vietnam. He re-emerged in 1979, as the last POW to come out of Indo-China alive.

Garwood met initial acclaim, and there was widespread public interest in his stories about seeing other Americans still in captivity.

But then the military court-martialled him for desertion and collaboration with the enemy. Former POWs said Garwood acted as a guard and interpreter for the North Vietnamese. But others said he used his position to smuggle in food and information. Garwood was convicted and dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps. As a result he was denied his back-pay and denied access to any future benefits.

There were similar cases in the 1950s as men came back from the Korean War. Several former POWs were prosecuted for desertion and/or collaboration with the enemy. Some served several years in US military prisons. They met some sympathy from some fellow prisoners who endured years of torture and psychological pressure and could understand why some men would break. But public opinion was pretty hostile.

It’s possible that a soldier could have absented himself from his post, perhaps as an act of desertion, and then been captured by the enemy. Is he a deserter, or a POW? Actually he’s both.

The US also has a long history of exchanging prisoners of war, even while a conflict was still on-going, such as during the Korean War, and as far back as the Civil War and even the American Revolution. The gray area in the Bergdahl case is whether the five Taliban released from Guantanamo were enemy combatants or some other kind of detainee.

Elsewhere in the world, Israel has attracted a lot of attention for its prisoner exchanges. Dozens of prisoners might be released in exchange for the remains of dead soldiers. In the case of a live soldier the price can be higher.

In 2011 Israel released 1,027 prisoners in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been held by Palestinians in Gaza for five years.

These prisoners included 280 serving life terms for planning or perpetrating acts of terror. Hamas claimed those released were responsible for killing 569 Israelis. The exchange was overwhelmingly popular with Israeli public opinion.