Something about the tumult over Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl ought to worry everyone who ever put on the uniform of his or her country or contemplates ever doing it. It is the notion that only exemplary soldiers deserve the thanks of their countrymen or at least sufficient gratitude that the nation should take extraordinary steps to repatriate them when they fall into the clutches of the enemy.
None of the critics of the prisoner exchange with the Haqqani network in Afghanistan — Sgt. Bergdahl for five former officials of the Taliban government who were held for a dozen years at Guantanamo Bay — will couch it in those words, but the substance of the argument is that Bergdahl did not deserve the risks the government took in bringing him home after five years in captivity.
After the first round of reaction, many of the politicians changed their rhetoric a little. Sure, they said, bring our boys home, but members of Congress should have been tipped before the American people were told about Bergdahl’s release and, besides, the price of one subpar soldier’s freedom is a heightened threat to American security. Both notions are baloney.
People do not give a fig whether the sensibilities of members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, were injured by not being told in advance that it was going to happen, nor should they. The soldier’s life may or may not have been in danger if congressmen had leaked the information, as would surely have happened if more than three had been told, but it was a risk that responsible officials were right not to have taken.
We have no way to judge Bergdahl’s mettle as a soldier, how smartly he performed under the pressure of combat, his discipline, or his mental state. He walked away from his post before his capture and there were unconfirmed stories that he had done so before, that he was a weird sort of guy and that he might have become disillusioned with the war. Imagine that. Other comrades described him as a good soldier who demonstrated compassion for the poor Afghan people he was there to protect and for the Afghan soldiers his unit was there to assist. One soldier said Bergdahl chafed about restrictions on engaging the enemy.
But none of that matters, except for the Army, which raised his rank while he was in captivity but may find reasons now to discipline him, or decorate him.
Everyone who volunteers to defend his country and fights in a strange and terrifying land enters that war as one person and comes out as quite a different human being, even if they return whole in mind and limb. Part of the other raging controversy of the day, the scandal over veterans’ medicine, is that the VA system collapsed under the massive demand for mental health treatment for GIs back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
However brave or disciplined he was or was not, the act of sacrifice he made to fight for his country put Sgt. Bergdahl in his country’s debt. Swapping his freedom in the final days of that long, long war for that of five men who served in the Afghan government that our fighters helped overthrow in 2002 is not an unpatriotic act. Washington would have done it. Lincoln would have done it. George W. Bush freed jihadists from Guantanamo and some of them returned to shoot at U.S. soldiers.
Reagan would have done it.
Yes, Ronald Reagan. After Iran released 66 Americans hostages it had held for 444 days, Reagan secretly sold the enemy 2,530 missiles along with weapon parts in exchange for Iran’s efforts to arrange the release of seven Americans held by Iranian terrorists operating in Lebanon. It was a violation of the U.S. embargo. It was OK, Reagan figured, since he was smuggling them to the enemy through Israel. Then the administration sent the profits from the missile sales to revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, also a violation of U.S. law.
Reagan believed he was obliging an American value, which is that you make deals to bring American citizens home, no matter how heedless they have been.
Which brings us to that security threat — that the five Taliban officials will leave Qatar and start killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. As with those Bush repatriated, it could happen. But while Sen. John McCain said the five were the “worst of the worst” at Guantanamo, four were ranked as low-risk detainees. The government had no evidence they had ever engaged in terrorism. They had fought in the Mujahideen, supported by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and became officials in the government that came to power after the overthrow of the communists and Russia’s retreat.
Come December, when the United States ends its combat mission in Afghanistan, the United States would be obliged by the Geneva Conventions to free them, unless we decided to ignore international law. It is legal to imprison people who pose a battlefield threat, but when the war ends they cannot be detained legally unless they are charged with a crime. The government hasn’t had evidence to charge them and, except for one, barely more than a suspicion.
But, really, this is not about Sgt. Bergdahl or terrorists. Like Benghazi, it’s about Barack Obama.