What punishment should Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl receive for allegedly deserting his post in Afghanistan? The answer comes by asking another question: What punishment has been handed out to American generals and politicians whose incompetence caused far more bloodshed and grief than anything Bergdahl did?

A key thing about justice is that it should be fair — people should be punished no matter their rank or title. The problem with the bloodlust for more action against Bergdahl — beyond his five years of horrific suffering as a Taliban prisoner — is that inept generals, rather than being court-martialed or demoted or reprimanded, have been rewarded and celebrated despite their dereliction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This duality is crystallized in a now-famous article written by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in 2007 for Armed Forces Journal. After describing the failures of general officers after 9/11 as well as in the Vietnam war, Yingling, who served three tours in Iraq and is now a teacher in Colorado, wrote a stinging sentence about justice and responsibility in the military: “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Let’s be clear about what it means to lose a war in the context of Iraq. It does not only mean that America failed to achieve its political or military goals. It means that more Americans and Iraqis lost their lives than needed to, and it means that war crimes were committed for which general officers bear command responsibility. Due to failures that Yingling and many others have noted — not anticipating the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, not recognizing the emergence of an insurgency, not figuring out the right strategy to respond to it — the war in Iraq ground on and the bloodshed has been enormous on all sides. Afghanistan is yet another graveyard of failures by general officers.

Two generals, in particular, have been criticized but not punished for serious mistakes that they and their subordinates made — Tommy Franks, who commanded U.S. forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and Ricardo Sanchez, who led U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The military writer Tom Ricks has done the best job so far of exposing their battlefield failures and the failure of our political and military leaders to do anything about it. Sanchez oversaw, among other disasters, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, for which low-ranking soldiers were sternly punished, such as Specialist Lynndie England, who served a year and a half in prison for her role in abusing Iraqi detainees. Ricks has noted, in a startling case of military chutzpah, that Sanchez was indignant he didn’t receive an extra star for his Iraq service.

“As far as I can tell, no general has been fired for incompetence in combat since Maj. Gen. James Baldwin was fired as commander of the Americal Division in 1971,” Ricks has said. “Since then, others have been relieved for moral and ethical lapses that are embarrassing to the Army, but not, to my knowledge, for combat ineffectiveness.”

If firing generals for incompetence is too much to ask for, how about retiring them at a lower rank? As Yingling noted, “A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty.” Yet even that modest level of reprimand has almost never occurred. Holding generals to account for war crimes committed on their watch is like waiting for Halley’s Comet — it happens with excruciating rarity.

Instead, dereliction is rewarded. In Oklahoma, for instance, there is the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute and Museum. Franks is a frequent public speaker (here’s his bio at the speakers bureau that represents him) and was tapped as an adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In Texas, Sanchez was sufficiently celebrated and popular to mount a primary run for an open Senate seat (he pulled out before the election), he has a school named after him, and like so many other retired generals, he gives a lot of speeches to admiring audiences.

So we circle back to Bowe Bergdahl, who could spend the rest of his life in prison for desertion and misbehaving before the enemy, unless there is a plea deal. If he is guilty, he should be convicted. But punishment beyond his torment at the hands of the Taliban would be unfair, even if it is true, as some allege, that G.I.s were killed while searching for him. Whatever blood he might have on his hands — and it’s far from clear there’s any — is minor compared to the generals and politicians who made far graver errors. It would be particularly unfortunate if Bergdahl became another sort of pawn, this time in the partisan polemics over President Obama’s decision to exchange five Taliban prisoners for him.

I reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the conflicts in Bosnia, Somalia and Sudan, so I understand the sense of betrayal among soldiers who served with Bergdahl, even if my understanding is that of a civilian who watched rather than fought. Their anger and desire for justice are not unreasonable. I share it, but my anger is directed upwards at the unpunished and unapologetic, rather than downwards at men and women who have suffered enough.

Photo: AP