By James M. Perry
Bowe Bergdahl, recently repatriated from Afghanistan, served at the time he fell into the Taliban's hands in June of 2009 as a private first class in the Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company, First Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment. The platoon, the New York Times reported Sunday, was "raggedy," without explaining just what it meant by that. Soldiers in the platoon -- about 42 of them, normally -- did, the story says, wear bandanas and T-shirts.
The Times report, by Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Eric Schmitt, says "an internal Army investigation into the episode concluded that the platoon suffered from lapses in discipline and security" in the period before Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared into isolated Paktika Province (he was promoted to sergeant while in enemy hands).
The platoon, probably a little raggedy to begin with, "was sent to a remote location with too few troops to seriously confront an increasingly aggressive insurgency, which controlled many villages in the region." It was lonely, dangerous work, and the platoon commander, probably a second lieutenant, "less than inspiring," was relieved weeks into the deployment and replaced by the platoon's top sergeant, but he too was relieved when Army brass was shown photos of his soldiers in those non-regulation bandannas and T-shirts.
It seems to have been the kind of standard SNAFU that has bedeviled every army in history at one time or another -- incompetent generals, poorly disciplined troops, lax security.
The 501st Regiment was not an elite unit. It is, in fact, a little difficult to say exactly what it is. The First Battalion, supposedly, is located in Fort Richardson, Alaska, and is part of the 25th Infantry Division, with headquarters in the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, made famous in James Jones's classic novel, “From Here to Eternity.’’ The division's Second Battalion, for reasons known only to the Army, is assigned to the 82d Airborne Division. During World War II and the war in Vietnam, the 501st was part of the 101st Airborne.
The problem with so many units in the American army is that their histories are so convoluted that it is almost impossible to develop unit cohesion or unit morale.
One of my favorite Army regiments is the 164th, activated early in World War II from the North Dakota National Guard. The regiment showed up in New Caledonia to join two other National Guard regiments and win designation as the Americal Division. Early on, its National Guard commanding officer was replaced by Colonel Bryant E. Moore, a West Pointer, and a first-class soldier. The 164th arrived on Guadalcanal ahead of the rest of the division in October of 1942 and was soon fighting side by side with exhausted Marines.
The Marines were so impressed they called the unit the 164th Marines, and one of its battalion commanders was awarded a Navy Cross.
So what happened to the glorious 164th? It was de-activated from federal service and reassigned to the North Dakota National Guard. It seems to me outstanding units such as the 164th should be treasured by the Army, not routinely deactivated.
Great Britain has done a lot scaling back the size of its army in recent years, but it has kept at least a vestige of its old regiments. There is, for example, only one Scottish regiment these days, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, but its battalions carry the names of Scotland's old regiments. The legendary Black Watch, for example, is now the Royal Regiment's Third Battalion. The Royal Regiment has its own band, its own distinctive uniform, its own Parachute Display Team, and (according to Wikipedia) its own Scots Shinty Club that plays a game somewhat akin to field hockey.
Britain's oldest regiment, the Coldstream Guards, has been in continuous service in the British army since 1650.
Sergeant Bergdahl's 501st Regiment was activated in 1942, disbanded in 1945, activated in 1946, inactivated in 1948, activated in 1951, deactivated in 1954, and activated in bits and pieces ever since. That's no way to run an army.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.