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America’s leaders don’t understand our military.

Early last summer, we, the people, received a mortifying example of the widening gulf between the way our nation’s leaders view the world and the outlook of those in uniform. When our president traded five of the world’s worst terrorists for an American soldier accused of desertion by his comrades, politicians and the media elite were shocked that our troops didn’t celebrate.

Instead, those who serve or have served were outraged by a tone-deaf, politics-driven attempt to portray Bowe Bergdahl as a hero. Whatever the ultimate merits of the case against Private Bergdahl (I never accepted his phony promotions), we all should be troubled by the jaw-dropping failure of our commander-in-chief, his deputies and the media to grasp the deepest values of those in uniform.

Our national security advisor even went on television to describe Bergdahl as someone who served with “honor and distinction,” infuriating his former comrades who had been forced to sign gag orders regarding Bergdahl’s actions. For the national security advisor, as well as for a legion of pundits who never wore a uniform, desertion before the enemy was sort of like skipping class.

For those who’ve served, though, desertion from a front-line post is the second gravest military sin, exceeded only by actively joining the enemy and killing former comrades. The gravity of the crime – and the way military members feel about it – was utterly lost on our “educated” elite whose members were, themselves, too important and too busy to “waste their time in the military.”

From a political perspective, the prisoner swap seemed a surefire way to shift the headlines. From the perspective of those who served with Bergdahl, the man we brought home was responsible for the deaths of at least six (others claim 14) truly honorable soldiers who died trying to find and free the man who slipped through the wire and walked away from his post.

This was a culture clash that matters.

The political actors apparently expected to score a triumph and quietly bury any potential charges against the former captive (“He’s suffered enough!”). But his former comrades demanded justice. And those who had worked the swap were blindsided that our troops would want military regulations applied to someone the elite saw as a victim.

Culture clash in the first degree.

As a former enlisted man, one of the things I learned to respect, even treasure, was the enlisted-man’s rough-and-ready sense of justice, of basic fairness. We didn’t all like one another – but we could trust one another when it mattered. Soldiers must be able to rely on one another, in peace and war. That’s the elementary value Bergdahl violated. His fellow soldiers just wanted a fair deal, for him to face the same consequences they would have faced. The developments we’ve witnessed since last summer are important, but not as important as the principle involved, the moral and ethical disconnect between those who march into battle and those who send them.

As for the prattlers in the media (who became instant experts on our military), we heard no end of a historical nonsense to the effect that “we always have done everything we can to bring home every American, even those accused of desertion.” Really? I seem to recall that, while we would not risk American lives to “save” deserters, we were pretty happy to shoot, hang or incarcerate them when we found them.

Of course, there’s a difference between deserting from Fort Bliss in peacetime and abandoning your comrades in an embattled outpost in eastern Afghanistan, but that’s another issue.

WATCH: Will our privileged ruling class make any effort to understand those who serve in uniform?

CRISIS WATCH BOTTOM LINE: Those who order our troops into battle no longer understand the values those troops cherish, such as duty, honor and country – or loyalty.


Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team, a Fox News strategic analyst, and the author of the forthcoming Civil War novel “Valley of the Shadow” (May 2015).

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.