What Matters Most: Bringing Bowe Bergdahl Back

What Matters Most: Bringing Bowe Bergdahl Back

Those who object to President Barack Obama’s recent prisoner exchange raise a bracing question: How many Taliban terrorists is one freed U.S. soldier worth?

That question lies at the heart of the backlash that President Obama has received after doing what many of his critics have been urging him to do: take action to free U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by the Taliban for the past five years.

The objections come mainly over the way he did it: He traded five high-ranking Taliban detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, whom many sources call the most dangerous U.S. detainees on the island.

Yet the president makes no apologies, he says, for following the time-honored American military ethos: Leave no man or woman behind. The big dispute, his opponents fume, is over the price.

But what, I ask, is the alternative? When a civilized country is drawing down a military action, as the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, it does not leave its soldiers behind, even if big questions surround them like the current uproar around Bergdahl.

We are not, for example, like Joseph Stalin. After beating Adolf Hitler’s army in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russian dictator was offered a high-value POW, his own eldest son, in exchange for a captured German field marshal. Yet Stalin refused. “I will not trade a marshal for a lieutenant,” he is reported to have said. The son, famously unloved by his father, would die in a German prison camp.

At the other, more honorable extreme, it’s hard to beat the risks taken by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he approved the release three years ago of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — including convicted terrorists responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths — to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli sergeant who had been held captive by Hamas for five years.

It was perhaps with that in mind that the Obama White House appears to have underestimated the political blowback that they would receive for the Bergdahl swap. Team Obama was ready for questions about the likelihood that the five released detainees would return to battle in Afghanistan, after a year under the supposedly watchful monitoring of Qatar’s government. The risk is real. But after a dozen years in custody at Guantánamo, their ability to return to command positions has been weakened by changing times, drone strikes and other military actions — some of which could be taken against the former detainees if they return to their old jobs.

Where Team Obama appears to have been caught off-guard is in the furor against Bergdahl. Otherwise, for example, National Security Advisor Susan Rice probably would not have gone on Sunday morning talk shows describing Bergdahl as having served with “honor and distinction.” Too many questions surround his record, as a media feeding frenzy soon exposed.

He was called a traitor and deserter by members of his platoon, whose rage is not hard to understand. Walking away from your fellow soldiers violates more than written military law. It breaks the crucial bond of mutual trust, reliance and interdependence that is at the core of military culture and the “warrior brotherhood,” for men and for women.

Yet not being liked by your fellow soldiers is damaging, but not illegal. By most accounts, Bergdahl did his job and performed like a quirky, adventurous oddball who kept to himself in a culture that can be unforgiving to nonconformists.

He also walked away twice before, once during training in California and once in Afghanistan, but he returned both times on his own. Was he on another one of his dangerous walkabouts in 2009 when he walked into the arms of the Taliban? Was he AWOL, which is a minor offense, or a deserter, meaning he did not intend to return?

GI Bowe is coming home. Perhaps now he can tell his side of the story. If he broke laws, he should be prosecuted. If a real court martial is necessary, it would be better than his current court martial by news media.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

AFP Photo

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