Of Cowardice and Desertion: A Historical and Contemporary Analysis

There is a famous line from a classical movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” where the wizard responds to the request of the cowardly lion for the quality he believed he lacked: courage. In that scene, the wizard states, “You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom.” The lion had previously overcome his reticence and performed courageously, and the wizard awarded him a medal for his efforts. The supreme irony here is that the lion had that quality within him all along. He had only to look within himself to overcome his own fear and apprehension.

While the merits of the wizards’ comments are debatable, it is a fact that no medal was awarded to the real-life Private Eddie Slovik; the last American soldier executed for desertion and the only one in WWII to have that distinction. Not that Slovik’s case was unique. According to records, over 21,000 American servicemen deserted during the war. This seemingly large number however, must be placed in proper perspective, if one considers that over 16 million Americans served during the war. Many of these deserters were given varying sentences of incarceration and 49 were sentenced to death, yet only Eddie Slovik paid the ultimate penalty.

Critics have said that the military needed to make an example of someone, given a desertion rate that grew exponentially as the level of fighting in Western Europe intensified late in 1944. Slovik seemed the most logical choice; having written a full confession detailing his desertion, refusing several reasonable requests to rejoin his unit, and having had a record as a petty criminal before the war.
It is highly unlikely that such a draconian penalty will be meted out to a contemporary deserter, currently awaiting judgment by a military court. Recently traded for 5 top level Taliban commanders; Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been held as a prisoner for 5 years.

The army only recently released it’s report, supposedly completed 5 months ago, stating Bergdahl had in fact deserted his unit and recommending a hearing and possible court martial. An earlier investigation conducted in the immediate aftermath of his “absence,” had previously come to the same conclusion, and members of his own unit to a man all concurred. Subsequently, Bergdahl’s status was changed from deserter to “status unknown.” It was during this period that he was promoted to Sergeant in absentia. Bergdahl claims that he was tortured while a prisoner and made a number of escape attempts; yet the fact remains that he was NOT taken prisoner under honorable circumstances, but went over voluntarily, to the enemy.

A Taliban commander, Haji Nadeem, reported that Bergdahl converted to Islam and gave material aid and support to the Taliban during his captivity. The tribulations he may have experienced while a prisoner, were therefore, misfortunes of his own making. In all fairness, Sgt Bergdahl is entitled to the presumption of innocence, as is every American charged with a crime. Recently, on March 26 the editorial staff of the NY Times published an article calling on the military to grant Bergdahl an honorable discharge. The editorial goes on to state that “anything less would deprive a traumatized veteran of benefits, including medical care which he will probably need for years.”

Can this be interpreted as an attempt to restore the reputation of an administration they closely identify with and enthusiastically support? While the Times compassion for an American soldier would be laudable under ordinary circumstances, one cannot help but think of the half-dozen American soldiers who died trying to find and rescue this man whom the president of the U.S. and his National Security advisor say, “served with honor and distinction,” implying he was a hero. If the military prosecutor fails to make his case, so be it; but the actions of the current U.S. administration, the outcry in certain media publications calling for an honorable discharge, Bergdahl’s change of status from deserter to “status unknown,” his subsequent trade for 5 top Taliban terrorist commanders, and the army’s excessive 5 month delay in releasing it’s completed report, calls into question the use of undue political influence from the highest level and casts a pall upon the ability of the military court to properly adjudicate this matter. If the charges are proven to be true, to grant Bergdahl an honorable discharge is an affront to every American who ever wore the uniform. If granted, how then, could this administration expect a soldier to fight for, and sacrifice their lives for our country when we show them such dishonor?

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for over a decade. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have rotated in and out of the war zones, many going through emotional and psychological catharses at least as traumatic as any experienced by Sgt Bergdahl. Thousands have returned home bearing not only the physical scars of war but the mental ones as well, yet only Bergdahl felt the compunction to desert his post. General Sherman
once observed that “War is hell”; yet, the overwhelming majority of soldiers find within themselves the strength of character necessary to discharge their duties. Bowe Bergdahl, by all accounts, did NOT. Who then, is the real Bowe Bergdahl and whom can he be compared with? Certainly not like the fictional cowardly lion, who never deserted his post, overcame his fear, and carried out his mission. Nor can a comparison be made with the real-life Eddie Slovik, who took full responsibility for his actions and paid the ultimate penalty. Did he succumb to his inner demons and desert his post, or did he exercise his innate wisdom and simply “run away from danger.” On this last point at least, there can be no doubt that the Wizard of Oz would most certainly agree.

by Caren Besner who has written articles published by Sun-Sentinel, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Journal, IsraPost, The Jewish Voice, Independent Sentinel, The Times of Israel, San Diego Jewish World, The Algemeiner, Jewish Press, The Florida Veteran, and American Thinker

About the Author
Caren Besner is a retired teacher who has written articles published by American Thinker, Sun-Sentinel, The Algemeiner, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Journal, IsraPost, The Jewish Voice, Independent Sentinel, San Diego Jewish World, Arutz Sheva, Jewish Press, The Front Page, The Florida Veteran, Jootube, The Moderate Voice, and Israel National News.