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Is Bowe Bergdahl a Deserter? If Freed POW Left Post, He Joins Ranks of Soldiers Moved by Conscience

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With freed American prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl now facing an Army probe into potential desertion, we are joined by Charles Glass, a historian and former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. Glass’ book, “The Deserters: A Hidden History of the Second World War,” tells the story of three men whose lives dramatize how the strain of war can push a soldier to the breaking point. They are among some 50,000 American soldiers who deserted in the European theater during World War II. “We have to understand what [Bergdahl] was going through,” Glass says. “The young person at the front line, having believed in his country’s mission in Afghanistan and discovering it was not at all what he was told it was, and saw himself as part of the mechanism of oppression, of killing people, of going into villages, and when trying to take out enemy combatants was killing families. I hope that we’ll understand what he went through and have compassion for him and his family.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In our next segment, we’ll talk about the fifth anniversary of the death of the doctor who performed abortions, George Tiller. But today we continue with this growing controversy around Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war who was released this past weekend. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And as we continue to look at Bowe Bergdahl’s case and the issue of military deserters, we’re joined in London by Charles Glass. He’s a historian and former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His book, The Deserters: A Hidden History of the Second World War, was published last year.

Charles Glass, welcome to Democracy Now! Could you tell us how you’ve responded to the news of Bowe Bergdahl’s release, given your research on military desertions in the Second World War?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, like most people, I was glad to see any serviceman who’s been held hostage released. His experience is not unlike that of some of the deserters that I wrote about in my book. I remember one, John Bain, a British serviceman who witnessed something very horrible in North Africa, which was he saw members of his own unit, the Gordon Highlanders, looting the bodies of their fallen comrades on the battlefield. And this sent him into such a psychological state of mind that he simply wandered away through the desert in what he called a fugue, a flight from reality. It reminds me somewhat of what then-Private Bergdahl might have felt that night when he was on sentry duty, when he wandered off without a weapon into the unknown. It sounds like a similar sort of fugue to John Bain’s, where he didn’t really know where he was going or what he was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk more about Bergdahl, can you talk about your own experience, Charles Glass, having been taken hostage yourself?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, I was taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon back in the 1980s, at a time when American and Europeans in Beirut, Lebanon, were fair game. As you may remember, just before my kidnapping, at the beginning of 1987, it had all come out that the Reagan administration was exchanging weapons which it sent to Iran in exchange for hostages, which the Iranians would order Hezbollah to release. The Republicans who are criticizing Obama now might recall the Iran-Contra affair, and the precedent set about exchanging weapons for hostages now is changing prisoners of war for prisoners of war.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, there has been a lot of coverage over the last few days of fellow soldiers on television talking about their anger at Bowe Bergdahl for what they call deserting. But in terms of the political views of the soldiers who were with Bowe Bergdahl at the time, yesterday on Democracy Now! we had a fascinating discussion with The Guardian reporter, photographer Sean Smith, who actually embedded with the unit in 2009, a month before Bowe Bergdahl left the base. He embedded with Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan. In this clip, we hear from some of the soldiers who were together with Bergdahl.

SOLDIER 1: These people just want to be left alone.

SOLDIER 2: Yeah, they got dicked with—they got dicked with from the Russians for 17 years, and then now we’re here.

SOLDIER 1: Same thing in Iraq when I was there. These people just want to be left alone, have their crops, weddings, stuff like that. That’s it, man.

SOLDIER 2: I’m glad they leave them alone.

SEAN SMITH: A few weeks later, Bowe Bergdahl, pictured in this photo, disappeared. The circumstances are unclear.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s from the 2009 video for The Guardian produced by Sean Smith, the filmmaker. Michael Hastings wrote about that video in a 2012 report for Rolling Stone, again noting the footage shows soldiers, quote, “breaking even the most basic rules of combat, like wearing baseball caps on patrol instead of helmets,” but very critical of what they were doing in Afghanistan. So, certainly, if the reports are accurate and the email is accurate that he sent his parents, Bowe Bergdahl was not alone in his disillusionment, Charles Glass.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, we know from many soldiers who came back from Vietnam, many who came back from Iraq and many who’ve come back from Afghanistan that they all disapprove of what the country was doing in those countries, that they were invaders, occupiers, who were telling their soldiers that they were there as liberators and people helping to build a country, and they discovered that it was completely different from what they thought. I’m not surprised to hear those voices from the men in Bergdahl’s unit, because they went through what he went through, which is that terrible disillusionment.

In my own research in the Second World War, the front-line soldiers—and almost all of the deserters in the Second World War were from the front lines, that very small minority of men who actually were in combat in the Second World War. None of their comrades on the front lines ever turned them in, because many of them had felt that same impulse themselves. They were under such pressure. It was one of the considerations that they had that they might just run away one day. It was the rear-echelon soldiers, those who never saw combat, who would, in the event, turn those deserters in to be court-martialed. Men at the front lines go through all kinds of emotions, conflicting emotions, and sometimes they have such trauma and such stress that they crack. They inflict wounds on themselves to get out of battle. They run away. And the men who are beside them understand it better than those who were in the offices and in the rear echelons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Charles Glass, in your research, you found that the leadership of a battalion plays a significant role in the number of desertions from a particular battalion. Could you elaborate on the significance of that?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, in—for example, in the 36th Infantry Division in the Second World War, fighting in the High Vosges, the desertion rates were out of all proportion to other divisions fighting similar battles. And partly it was because the officers themselves had had such little time to train, and they weren’t effective leaders. In another unit, for example, Audie Murphy, who was the most highly decorated of all the American servicemen who served in World War II, he worked his way up through the ranks from private to captain, and he was leading his company. And when he—he describes when one of his men broke down and had clear battlefield trauma and couldn’t fight anymore. Instead of sending him for court-martial, as some of the commanders in the 36th Division did, he sent him for medical psychiatric treatment. At all front-line medical facilities, there were psychiatrists, because about 25 percent of all wounds in the Second World War were psychological and not physical.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, you write that thousands of American soldiers were convicted of desertion during the war. I mean, the numbers are astounding just of deserters: 50,000 Americans, 100,000 British soldiers during World War II. But 49 were sentenced to death. Most were given years of hard labor. One soldier was actually executed, a U.S. Army private from Detroit named Eddie Slovik. He was killed by firing squad January 31st, 1945, making him the American soldier—the only—the first American soldier to be court-martialed and executed for desertion since the American Civil War. Talk about him and the number of people who deserted, and then who was actually punished.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, Eddie Slovik never actually fought. He arrived in France well after D-Day and was sent as an infantry replacement to a unit where he didn’t know anyone, wouldn’t know anyone. As soon as he arrived near the front lines, he came under a severe shelling. He was deeply shocked by it. He was shaken. He probably should have been sent immediately for medical treatment and might have—might have been able to serve after that. But in the event, he was so frightened, he told his officers that he couldn’t fight, indeed wouldn’t fight. He didn’t. He wasn’t capable of it. They then were forced to court-martial him. The timing—he was convicted. He was convicted and sentenced to death. As many as 48 others were.

But when he launched his appeal, the timing couldn’t have been worse, because the German counteroffensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge, had begun, and the military did not want to be seen to be condoning desertion, so they carried out his execution. But in this strange kind of military logic, they said they wanted to make an example of him, but they kept the execution secret. It wasn’t really known until 1948, when William Bradford Huie wrote his first article about Eddie Slovik, in which he didn’t even name him, that a soldier had been executed for desertion. No one knew about it. So it wasn’t really much of an example. And by the time he was shot, the Battle of the Bulge was ending in any case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what happened to the remaining 48? I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing. Slovik was the first deserter to be executed since the American Civil War.

CHARLES GLASS: First and last, I mean, for desertion. Soldiers have—many soldiers were executed during the Second World War for rape, murder and other civilian crimes, but Slovik was the only one executed for desertion. He said—by his own admission, he said he was a victim of very bad luck and that if he hadn’t been an ex-con—he was an ex-con; he’d been a petty criminal before he went into the Army—he might not have been—might not have been executed. He was right. He was very, very unlucky.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, how many of those that you looked at who deserted, deserted for conscientious reasons, because of their concerns about war? And what was the response of society afterwards?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, in World War II, it wasn’t the same as in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan. The soldiers who deserted weren’t conscientiously opposed to fighting Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany. They simply had severe battlefield trauma, and they wandered away from the battlefield because they just couldn’t take it anymore, psychologically were incapable of taking any more. It was their only mechanism for survival. Many of them, when they reported back, were given medical treatment and went back to the front lines. Many were court-martialed. It was almost arbitrary which it would be, depending on the superior officer who made the decision. I came across almost no cases of people who were opposed to the war in principle. They—those who were opposed to war in principle were conscientious objectors who didn’t serve in the military in any case, so that it wasn’t the same issue as it would be in the post-World War II wars that America fought.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final reflections, Charles Glass, having written this book and now seeing this story play out of the release of Bowe Bergdahl after five years being held by the Taliban, clearly before he left his base expressing antiwar views?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, I think it’s call for compassion. We have to understand what he was going through, what a young person at the front line, having believed in his country’s mission in Afghanistan, discovering it was not at all what he was told it was, that saw himself as part of a mechanism of oppression, of killing people, of going into villages and, when trying to take out enemy combatants, was killing families—what that does to a young man. I think we have to wait and see what he says when he leaves Germany and he’s finally allowed to speak publicly. And I hope that we will understand what he went through and have some compassion, as I say, for him and for his family. And it’s not really an issue of how patriotic he was. He was clearly patriotic enough to join the Army in the first place. He certainly believed in his country enough to do that. But in a way, his country let him down.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Glass, I want to thank you for being with us. Charles Glass, historian, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent, his book, Deserter: A Hidden History of the Second World War. When we come back, we go to the fifth anniversary of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Stay with us.

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