It was not to be. Ironically, a White House that has turned over the National Security Council to a group of political operatives, spinmeisters and speechwriters, turned out to be jaw-dropping tone-deaf when it came to anticipating the national response. First, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who established her willingness to say anything no matter how far-fetched the Sunday morning after Benghazi, described Bergdahl as “an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield,” who had served his nation with “honor and distinction.” In her “defense,” Col Ralph Peters noted that none of the Obama inner circle served in the military and that “honor and distinction” is just one of those catch-phrases politicians use to shield themselves from charges that they are insufficiently supportive of our men in uniform.
Rice’s description nevertheless triggered a storm of responses from those in Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan, despite the fact that most had been required to sign non-disclosure by the army about the circumstances of his disappearance from his base in Afghanistan. They knew, and an internal army investigation confirmed, that far from being captured on the battlefield, Bergdahl had simply walked away from his post one evening and into the Afghanistan countryside. Before doing so, as reported in a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone piece on Bergdahl, he asked his commanding officer whether it would be a problem if he took sensitive equipment with him. When the officer responded that it would be a problem, he left his rifle and night-vision goggles behind. Prior to leaving, he sent his belongings home to his parents and wrote them of his shame at being an American.
What most infuriated Bergdahl’s former comrades-in-arms, however, was that they held him responsible for the deaths of at least six fellow soldiers killed in ambushes or other battles while searching for Bergdahl. CNN’s Jake Tapper listed the six by name and the circumstances of their deaths. While it is difficult to specify any particular mission as connected specifically to Bergdahl’s disappearance, the Rolling Stone article quoted Col. Michael Howard, the senior officer in Afghanistan’s three easternmost provinces, as calling off all other operations “until the missing soldier is found.”
The other side of the equation proved equally problematic. Defense Secretary Hagel stated that he would not have signed off on the exchange if he had any doubts about America’s ability to mitigate any risk to American security. But the Joint Task Force-Quantanamo that initially interrogated the five senior Taliban figures who were sent to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl came to the conclusion that each represented a “high risk” of returning to battle if released. A number of them had longstanding contacts with Al-Qaeda at the time of their capture. And two out of the five are wanted by the UN for war crimes in connection with the killing of thousands of Afghani Shiites. An anonymous senior Defense Department official was quoted as describing their return as tantamount to handing over five four-star generals.
Even the Quantanamo Review Task Force created by President Obama for the purpose of emptying the base of prisoners, included all five of the senior Taliban commanders on their list of 48 detainees who should be held until the end of all hostilities. Michael Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under President Obama, said that it was “very, very likely that the five Taliban leaders would return to the fight. And Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that four out of five, and possibly all five, would rejoin the fight.” Nor will senior Hamas figures find the year they are to spend in Qatar before being free to travel unduly confining. They will be free to move about and the U.S. will not be monitoring their movements, a senior Gulf official told Reuters. Nor will they find Qatar an unfriendly environment for their extreme Islamist views. Qatar is already home to the Taliban government in waiting and plays host to Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi, the leading religious authority for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Finally, there was the little matter of failing to give Congress the requisite 30-day notice under the National Defense Authorization Act. That oversight was greeted with dismay from both sides of the aisle, particularly by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She pointed out that there had been notification when such an exchange was first mooted in 2011 – and partly killed by bipartisan opposition – and Congress had made clear its desire to be kept in the loop. She expressed her surprise that the president was “totally not following the law.”
Rice explained that concerns about a serious decline in Bergdahl’s health had mandated immediate action when an opportunity to secure his release arose. But even she had to admit after Bergdahl’s handover that he was not in serious medical condition – gaunt, undernourished, but able to walk on his own, and showing no signs of imminent danger.
NOW FOR THE CONFUSING PART. Prisoner exchanges inevitably arouse a welter of conflicting emotions and thoughts. So it was with the exchange of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, and so, to a far lesser degree, it is with respect to the exchange for Bowe Bergdahl. On the one hand, we have before us the powerful image of the young man in captivity and his grieving parents; on the other the knowledge that any exchange agreed upon will likely result in the deaths or capture of no less appealing young men and produce equally grieving parents. Only the latter carry less force because they do not yet have faces attached to them.
In some ways, the tension was captured by an exchange between Charles Krauthammer and Andrew McCarthy. Krauthammer argues that the exchange had to be made as a consequence of the implicit pact governments make with those who volunteer or are conscripted for military duty to do everything possible to bring them back. If Bowe deserted or went AWOL (a lesser offense), that can be sorted out later in a court of military justice. True, the exchange is an unequal one, but our willingness to make it nevertheless, writes Krauthammer, is a tribute to the superior value we place on human life.
To that last suggestion, McCarthy objected strenuously. First because our enemies, who live according to an ethic of strong horse versus weak horse, will see in our actions not superior values but weakness. More important, however, argues McCarthy, is that the decision is at its core anti-humanitarian in the sense that more lives will be lost as a consequence. The seasoned Taliban commanders will, in all likelihood, return to the battlefield, while tens of thousands of American military personnel are still in Afghanistan, the incentive to abduct U.S. soldiers will increase, and terrorists will gain new cachet in the eyes of would be recruits.
Another source of uncertainty, at least for me: Last summer, I spent many hours listening to a series of lectures by the late Professor J. Rufus Fears on great thinkers who have changed history. One lecture focused on the two most famous funeral orations for fallen soldiers: Pericles’ oration over the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both spoke of the nobility of the fallen and of the ideals for which they fell – the liberty of the Athenian polis in Pericles’ oration and the preservation of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal” in Lincoln’s.
Fears’ next lecture created a troubling juxtaposition to the nobility of sacrifice described by Pericles and Lincoln. It consisted almost entirely of readings from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written, in which the young German narrator quickly comes to view the slaughter of millions of young men in the brutal trench warfare of World War I as senseless. And the truth is that the slaughter was senseless. Unless one considers the Fatherland itself a high ideal, the young German soldiers were being asked to die for the sake of Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperial ambitions.
Thinking back to the latter lecture, I found myself more sympathetic to Bergdahl than I otherwise might have been. In virtually every respect, the case for the exchange for Gilad Shalit was infinitely stronger than that for Bowe Bergdahl. Shalit’s lack of attentiveness in training may have contributed to his capture, but he did not deliberately abandon his comrades in the field or willfully put himself in a situation in which they would have to risk their own lives trying to recapture him.
But in one sense, Shalit was more fortunate than Bergdahl. He in all probability knew why he was stationed on the Gaza border: to protect his country from infiltration of those bent on killing as many of his fellow Jews as possible. Israeli soldiers do not, by and large, have to fear that they are pawns of their leaders’ vanity or political ambitions. The most glaring exception would be the final days of fighting in the Second Lebanon War, when 33 Israeli soldiers were killed in ground-fighting without any conceivable objective. For those lives, even more than for all his various financial chicanery, Ehud Olmert deserves whatever time he spends in jail.
At least initially, according to a largely sympathetic 2012 portrayal by Rolling Stone’s Michael Hasting, Bergdahl also enlisted out of idealism. He told his parents that he was going to Afghanistan to help villagers learn to defend themselves, presumably from the Taliban. He was then reading Three Cups of Tea about the humanitarian efforts to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was doubtless familiar with how the Taliban had forbidden women and girls from being seen by doctors and from being educated when they ruled Afghanistan.
I will confess to being instinctively sympathetic to humanitarian interventions. Perhaps that owes to many hours spent reflecting on how relatively easy it would have been for Allied bombers to destroy the tracks to Auschwitz and thereby spare the lives of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. I feel shame that the United States did nothing to stop the slaughter of nearly a million Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994 (though I know nothing about the history of the two tribes’ bloody hatred). And when I read of how Saddam Hussein and his even more sadistic sons dropped living beings into meat-shredders, and how those who grew up under his omnipresent security state never dared speak openly to another human being, I could not help but feel that ridding the world of Hussein was a great and worthy achievement, whether he possessed weapons of mass destruction (as every Western intelligence service assumed) or not.
And I suspect that Bergdahl felt something of the same about the Taliban in Afghanistan when he enlisted. But he probably came to realize pretty quickly that little of what he was doing in Afghanistan had much to do with bringing education to girls. And the alternative to the Taliban was a group of almost equally primitive, authoritarian and corrupt tribal warlords.
Had he walked off base in 2012 rather than 2009, he might have had even more reason to wonder what purpose could possibly be served by his death in combat. By then, and even more so today, American soldiers could be forgiven for thinking that the nearly 3,000 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan – in what President Obama once called the “good war” (as opposed to the bad war in Iraq, where the U.S. at least had vital strategic interests) – had, like the German boys killed in the trenches in the Great War, died in vain.
I do not consider myself a low-information voter, and yet I have very little idea what the United States is currently fighting for in Afghanistan. I rather assume that after the previously announced withdrawal date of the last American soldier by the end of the 2016, the Taliban will be poised to once again take over much of the country, if not the entirety. And Afghanistan will return to being the same miserable, backward, poppy (for heroin)-growing country it was before we got there. Hopefully, I’m totally uninformed and there is a plan. But if there is, I sure hope the American soldiers whose lives are on the line know what it is and why they are being asked to risk their lives for their country.
Which is all a very long way of saying that I do not have trouble conjuring up sympathy for Bowe Bergdahl, even while I empathize even more with the fury today of those he left behind when he left his base and who were called upon to risk their lives and watch friends and comrades lose theirs in futile attempts to rescue him.