18 February 2016

How soldiers like Bowe Bergdahl can wind up hating good commanders

By Wesley Morgan 
February 8 

This undated file image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, file) 

It’s an axiom among military leaders: command is not a popularity contest. That folk wisdom has given a measure of comfort to many officers whose soldiers resent them for sending them into harm’s way — and frustrated many more soldiers convinced that their commander really does not have their best interests at heart.

What no commander expects is for a junior soldier, when he does dislike his commander, to walk off into enemy territory. But that was what Bowe Bergdahl did — and, by his own account, excerpted at length in the latest episode of the hit podcast “Serial,” that was why he did it.

The commander of Bergdahl’s unit — then-Lt. Col. Clint Baker, the Texan graduate of West Point who led the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — was an “out-of-control” menace, Bergdahl told filmmaker Mark Boal in one of the interviews the podcast excerpted. “I wouldn’t put it past him to purposely put me and my platoon-mates in harm’s way just because he has a personal grudge against us” or for other nefarious reasons hidden from junior soldiers.

By walking across Taliban territory to another base, Bergdahl claims, he hoped to cause an emergency which would then allow him to bring Baker’s leadership failures to the attention of a general.

But a soldier who served in 1st Battalion as a lieutenant, Nate Bethea, told Checkpoint in an interview that Bergdahl’s assessment of their battalion commander could hardly have been farther from the mark. “Colonel Baker got that battalion because he was a good officer,” Bethea said. “He’s a genuinely, sincerely nice person who actually liked being out there doing operations with his soldiers and sharing their risk.”

Craig Whiteside, a retired lieutenant colonel who was with 1st Battalion on its previous deployment, gave an even more glowing endorsement of Baker, his former West Point classmate.

“It’s true that the Army sometimes puts people in command who don’t deserve to be there, but the Army did not make a mistake in selecting Clint Baker to be a battalion commander, and I say that as the guy who was in competition with him to command that battalion and lost out,” Whiteside said in an interview. “I’d go work for Clint right now. He’s just an absolutely fantastic officer, solid-headed, with no ego, to a rare degree. I’ve never seen anyone work harder to dedicate their life to being a good Army officer.

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