Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

When Soldiers Walk Away

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

When Soldiers Walk Away

Article excerpt

In the 1970s, Vietnam veteran-turned-novelist Tim O'Brien created Pvt. Cacciato, an impulsive soldier who one day gathered up rations, water, maps and a compass and, as Mr. O'Brien mordantly put it, "left the war," telling buddies he intended to walk all the way to Paris.

"Going After Cacciato," Mr. O'Brien's phantasmagorical novel about the Army's search for the AWOL grunt and its harrowing culmination in, yes, the City of Light, was an extended meditation on courage and cowardice and one of the best American books about the war in Southeast Asia, or any war, for that matter.

Now Afghanistan has given us Bowe Bergdahl, who apparently thought he could walk to Pakistan in real life as easily as Pvt. Cacciato walked to Paris in fantasy but instead wound up a prisoner of the Taliban for five years, until President Barack Obama swapped five top Taliban figures for him last week.

Politicians and pundits are struggling to impose their own self- serving narratives on this stranger-than-fiction character and his strange-as-fiction tale.

Mr. Obama made a bit of a fool of himself by treating Sgt. Bergdahl's impending return as appropriate for Rose Garden celebration, complete with grateful parents, even though he knew, or easily should have known, that Sgt. Bergdahl is hardly a hero.

That attempt to gin up an election-year feel-good story fell flat, as did national security adviser Susan Rice's clueless depiction of Sgt. Bergdahl's Army career as one of "honor and distinction."

White House efforts to glorify Sgt. Bergdahl were matched by the right's efforts to demonize him. He stands accused of desertion, which is indeed a very serious offense. Convicting him of it under military law requires proof, which we don't yet have, that he intended to leave his unit for good or sought to avoid a hazardous assignment.

Nor is it proved, despite what you may have heard, that Sgt. Bergdahl's going AWOL directly or indirectly caused the deaths of six soldiers sent to look for him, though the search certainly imposed costs and risks on the Army and its troops. Never mind: According to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "There is compelling evidence that the sergeant violated military law and may have even collaborated with the enemy. …

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