What seemed impossible only a few months ago now seems at least feasible: Donald Trump could become the next president of the United States.
Who has the most to fear from a Trump presidency? Muslims? Mexicans? Women? The disabled? The poor? What Trump really thinks about these groups is elusive, but at one point or another during the campaign for the nomination, he has treated all of them with dismissive contempt, exclusionary condescension and ridicule.
But large groups of people are abstractions, easy to attack from a podium at a rally full of fired-up supporters. Do individuals have anything to fear from a Trump presidency?
How about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl? Last week his trial was rescheduled from Aug. to Feb. 6, when he will face charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a crime that bears the potential penalty of life in prison.
By February, we’ll have a new commander in chief, probably either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. What does that mean for Bowe Bergdahl?
By way of review: Bergdahl was on duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2009 when he wandered away from his post and was captured by the Taliban. He was held for five years in harsh conditions and was occasionally tortured. Time was running out for a sick and exhausted Bergdahl when he was repatriated in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
The prisoner swap was controversial, and President Obama took a lot of predictable heat from the right. But I argued in its defense at the time — and still do. The circumstances of Bergdahl’s absence from his post in Afghanistan were unknown, and no commander in chief should leave an American soldier to his fate in enemy hands without the opportunity to defend himself against any allegations.
Further, I argued for leniency for Bergdahl — and still do. He volunteered to serve his country out of patriotism, but without enough self-awareness to realize that he wasn’t suited for military life. After 26 days of basic training the Coast Guard rejected him for psychological reasons. Nevertheless the Army, in need of troops, inducted him under a special waiver that ignored evidence of his mental instability.
And then the Army sent him into a poorly managed war that, by 2009, America had mostly lost interest in. He was put into combat and subjected to mental stresses that he was ill-equipped to handle.
Should any soldier be permitted to leave his post with impunity? No. But life in prison? That’s way too harsh.
So Bergdahl will go on trial in February. One potential commander in chief, Hillary Clinton, defended the prisoner swap. She said, “This young man, whatever the circumstances, was an American citizen — is an American citizen — was serving in our military…The idea that you really care for your own citizens and particularly those in uniform, I think is a very noble one.”
On the other hand, if Trump wins, here’s the attitude that he brings to the job of commander in chief: “We’re tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed…Thirty years ago he would have been shot.”
These are two very different attitudes. Of course, it’s worth noting that Trump, a scion of the rich and powerful, never served in combat or even in the military, and that he managed to avoid the Vietnam War draft with four student deferments and questionable recourse to a medical disqualification for bone spurs in his foot.
Yet he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five honorable years in the Hanoi Hilton: McCain is “a war hero because he got captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
I suspect that showing McCain a little respect or showing Bergdahl a little compassion will not destroy our nation’s military discipline, and it might assure other patriotic volunteers that they won’t be left behind or sent to prison for life if they are unable to stand up to the stresses of combat. This is something that Trump, commander in chief or not, will never be able to understand.
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John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected].