At present, the debate about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is an either-or exercise. Is he a Hero? Or a Deserter? As it's put like that, you can see that "deserter" for certain people has precious little relationship to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is, for them, another way of saying "coward."

Pretty much every war—just, unjust, and in between—has seen its share of deserters. Most of them have received more public and military sympathy than the pundits are conjuring right now.

The deserters usually bleed from either side of the front. In the Civil War, which was particularly desertion-prone, more than 100,000 men deserted from each side. It was, for a time, official federal policy to encourage Confederate soldiers to desert, to use attrition against the enemy. Ulysses S. Grant even signed off on giving such defectors money, if they pledged their newly uprooted loyalty to the union. And Robert E. Lee himself was granting blanket pardons for deserters as late as 1865:

That just shows that heroism and cowardice are relative terms. And that it's always been that way, even in an era where "honor" and "loyalty" had perhaps more obvious content than they do in our own.

Even when the desertion is a clear-cut case, which it isn't in Bergdahl's, the punishment varies because the circumstances matter. In the entire 2oth century America shot only one man for desertion. All 24 of the men sentenced to death in World War I saw their sentences commuted by Woodrow Wilson; most of the convicted deserters in World War II managed to escape that fate too. The exception was a man named Eddie Slovik, from Detroit. He was originally classified as unfit for service, due to a minor criminal record, but then they reclassified him and suddenly he was on the front lines in France.

Slovik was, as Charlie Glass points out in his book The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, brave in his own way. When he decided he could no longer fight he simply told people he was refusing and turned himself in to a cook several miles behind the front. Eisenhower refused to commute his death warrant anyway and a firing squad was assembled by the wall of a nearby farmhouse. Slovik's last words were:

They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I'm it because I'm an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that's what they are shooting me for. They're shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.

At first Slovik's case was covered up; his widow herself only learned how he died when a journalist told her about it in the mid-1950s. When that journalist published a book, the story briefly became the subject of a national debate about whether Slovik had been properly treated. There was so much public interest in this question that they made a television movie out of it, starring Martin Sheen. (Frank Sinatra briefly wanted to produce and direct the story.)

Glass contrasts that case with another World War II deserter, Wayne Powers, who had a very different leave-taking from the service. Powers met a French woman, fell in love with her. Later, in trouble with his unit over a missing truck, he fled to her house. He proceeded to live in hiding for 15 years before being discovered and handed over to military police in 1958. In between, the Frenchwoman had had five children by Powers; she went to work in a factory and he was housebound with the children, who were forbidden to speak of who their father was.

When Powers' story broke in the papers the American public was charmed by the love story. And as such, although his court-martial originally sentenced him to 10 years' hard labor, Powers did only six, and was then released. He later married the Frenchwoman in question.

The deserters of subsequent wars have raised more ire, perhaps because they tended to be more overt about their politics. In the late 1960s so many GIs deserted and went to Sweden that they were able to organize. They had a litany of complaints that ranged from the injustice of the war in Vietnam generally, to racism in military ranks more generally, and on out to the wholly abstract debate of whether America should serve as the world's policeman. For these complaints they were sometimes excoriated in the press, called immature, but they tended not to be damned for it either.

Even the ones who were less directly political managed to enjoy a certain kind of public mercy. Charles Robert Jenkins, who was serving in Korea in 1965 but feared he might be sent to Vietnam, got drunk and ended up surrendering to forces in North Korea.

He was subsequently kept there for almost 39 years in the kind of conditions you'd expect from the North Koreans: indoctrination, beatings, huts without running water, a kind of arranged marriage to a fellow abductee. Reading about it makes you wonder how and why he survived it. But when Jenkins was eventually released to Japan he did not get a pardon. He had to report for a court martial, was dishonorably discharged and the rest of it, and received a sentence of 30 days' confinement. Jenkins admitted then that when he'd deserted,

"I no longer wanted to be in the military, I just wanted to go home," he said when he learned just after his Christmas 1964 home leave that his unit was to be sent to Vietnam.

"I knew Vietnam was combat, jungle warfare," he said in response to a question from the presiding Army judge, Col. Denise Vowell. "I had never been in the jungle in my life. How could I lead soldiers?"

Bergdahl's case seems, in many ways, to be closest to this last case. Bergdahl's suffering was shorter, but still long enough, and motivated at base by a rash decision. Someone with a better knowledge of the facts than have presently been reported will be the best judge of whether his abandonment of his post was really all that political. My own suspicions are that it was "political" in the sense that an alchemy of idealism, fear, and youthful bad judgment led him off his post. But then as you can see, it was always that way.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke.]