Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s Hearing Begins With a Wounded Navy SEAL

What is misbehavior before the enemy?

The charge is so broadly written it could seemingly cover most war-zone misconduct, including cowardice, failing to do the utmost to destroy the enemy, and failing to do everything possible to assist and relieve allied troops.

In Sergeant Bergdahl’s case, it means that he endangered his comrades by leaving and that he “wrongfully caused search and recovery operations.” No troops were killed searching for Sergeant Bergdahl, the investigating officer concluded, but the judge later found that some were wounded, clearing the way for Mr. Hatch to testify.

Experts say the misbehavior charge dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and has always been about maintaining ranks when it counts the most — in the presence of the enemy.

“It goes back to the idea that you have the lives of your own comrades in your hands when you are fighting together in the field of combat, and that’s why it’s so serious if you let them down,” said Bruce Houlder, the top prosecutor in the British armed forces from 2008 to 2013.

How has it been used in the United States?

The first notable use of the charge in the United States followed the War of 1812, when the commander of Fort Detroit was prosecuted for surrendering without a fight, said Joshua Kastenberg, a former Air Force judge.

The commander received a death sentence, later commuted by President James Madison. The case helped launch the political career of the prosecutor, Martin Van Buren, who became president.

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During the Civil War, the misbehavior charge was often lodged against officers who got drunk and put their troops at risk.

There were also hundreds of cases during World War I, some for nothing more than saying things considered pro-German, Mr. Kastenberg said. One sergeant was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to a year in prison for telling troops that President Woodrow Wilson was worse than the Kaiser.

Why is it so rarely used today?

After World War II came the introduction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which offered a road map to charging soldiers with offenses that were easier to prove, like those related to unauthorized absences.

The misbehavior charge can carry a death sentence, but Sergeant Bergdahl faces a maximum punishment of life in prison. If recent misbehavior cases are any guide, that would be uncharacteristically severe.

There are only a handful, but in one of the most serious, in 2014, an Army staff sergeant left his squad as it was defending the base perimeter during a Taliban attack.

He grabbed a calendar with sexually suggestive pictures, kicked two junior soldiers out of a tent, went inside, and emerged 15 minutes later, bragging that he had gotten his “combat Jack,” meaning that he had masturbated, court documents say.

The attack lasted hours and left one soldier wounded, but the staff sergeant was not sentenced to serve any time.

He received a bad-conduct discharge — one notch above a dishonorable discharge — and was demoted to private.

In another case, a Marine refused to leave on a mission off base, saying he feared death. He was sentenced to one year in jail. A third service member, this one in the Air Force, used hashish, violated a no-contact order and engaged in sexual activity while on post. He served five months in jail. Both received bad-conduct discharges.

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What does that mean for Sergeant Bergdahl?

The first of the three cases, the Army case, was cited in some back-and-forth over whether Sergeant Bergdahl was unfairly hit with two charges, desertion and misbehavior, for one act, leaving his post.

In the earlier Army case, the staff sergeant was also given two charges: leaving his appointed place of duty and misbehavior.

But the defense has argued that unlike Sergeant Bergdahl, the staff sergeant actually committed two separate offenses: abandoning his post during a firefight, and going inside the tent to engage “in an act that did not conform to the standard of behavior required by a soldier engaging the enemy in combat.”

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