Bowe Bergdahl’s Collateral Casualties
It has been ten days since Bowe Bergdahl was released from five years of captivity and flown to a hospital in Germany, and for ten days I have wrestling with it, trying to marshal my thoughts and my emotions.
Contrary to my usual “junkie” approach, I have deliberately been far more restrained in what I read and how I engage with others. That takes effort, because it’s a 24-hour a day story, and the accusations and denunciations have reached such a screech that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
Are we less safe? I honestly don't know. The GOP and affiliated media have conjured up armies of terrorists walking our streets preparing to strike at freckle-faced children. Maybe we are less safe—these weren’t choirboys we released, and whatever the terms that were worked out with the Omani’s (who acted as go between) it’s at best hopeful thinking that these chaps will abide by them. So, that means we are less safe? It depends on whom you ask. Retired General James Mattis (Marines) appeared on CNN to say that US commanders in Afghanistan always lived with the fear that their attacks would spur the Taliban to kill Bergdahl. With Bergdahl returned, they no longer had this constraint. Who is Mattis, besides an obvious Obama-bot, and what could he know that a talking head in the media or empty head in Congress wouldn’t? He was the former Chief of the US Central Command (which included Afghanistan) from 2010 to 2013.
Have we “negotiated with terrorists?” I will spare people the distant past (during the Reagan years) when the Taliban were seen as freedom fighters as they squared off against the Russians. Let’s go with a yes. We have negotiated with terrorists, and just to be clear, we are continuing to negotiate with those same terrorists over a wide range of issues as we wind down our involvement there, something the American people very much want. And, not to make an obvious point, but you are never negotiating with friends when you are talking about getting back a hostage. We do not have to invite them over for tea and finger sandwiches. If you want the job done, you put on your waders and rubber gloves. That’s reality.
OK, so what about this 5/1 swap? Outrageous, and demonstrates the usual Obama weakness? I find this one bizarre. The Israelis, perhaps the most tough-minded people among the democracies of the world, routinely swap dozens, hundreds, and sometimes into the thousands in return for one of theirs—including the dead. One thousand for one dead body? They do this for two reasons—because they are hardheaded realists, and that’s what it takes, and because, in a tiny little country like theirs, they need to let every citizen know that they belong something bigger. It's called looking after your own.
Was Bergdahl worth it? Was he worth anything? That’s a hard question. Clearly he was no hero. Bergdahl is by all accounts a deeply troubled man, apparently refusing even to phone his parents, who haven’t spoke to him in five long years. He’s not a hero, he’s not a saint, and he’s not even a villain. Just as sad kid who got involved in things that were bigger than his emotional resilience could manage. We can judge him all we want—he’s made himself the target of our opinions, and even our disdain, by his actions.
So, he wasn’t worth it? You don’t negotiate with terrorists, make us weaker, and give the opportunity for columns of Taliban to search for nearest Senior’s community to savage for a mental case and a “traitor?”
That’s a very complicated question. Consider the following. In WWII, one in four casualties were for “battle fatigue.” And that’s the Greatest Generation—men who grew up in the Depression, who perhaps had a far better understanding of what a little want and discomfort could mean. The ratio of “mentals” to total casualties for those in lengthy and extended combat was one in two. The Pacific theatre was particularly bad, with tropical weather, the creepiness of the jungle, and the threat of kamikaze attacks making fear an enveloping companion. 26,000 men were deemed psychiatric cases and had to be evacuated just in the brutal effort to take Okinawa.
Would you really have left 26,000 men in Okinawa because they went a little nuts? Are you really so sure of yourself that, if you were put in harm’s way, you would never succumb to fear? Imagine a society that would simply walk away from people of whom it had asked the highest sacrifice?
The fact is you don’t have to admire Bergdahl, or hold a parade for him, or shower him with medals. The real tragedy of the Bergdahl affair isn’t that he’s back, or how he got back. It’s whom he came back to. We have acted in a way unworthy of our better instincts. Or, to put it more directly, most of us ought to be a little ashamed of the last couple of weeks.
So, and I would include myself in some of these, let me test-drive the condemnatory phrase “appalling.”
Appalling is the fact that Mr. Obama fail to comply with the thirty day notification requirement. Constitutional or not (it probably isn’t) and like it or not, it’s still the law. He didn’t comply and he should have. Of course, we know why he didn’t. He had a window of opportunity to make the deal, some emergent need, and he knew Republicans would never support it and run immediately to Fox to kill it. But to notify was his obligation, and he didn’t.
Appalling is the Congressional Republicans who claimed they knew nothing. They were in fact briefed in detail both in 2011 and 2012, and they did express concerns then on prisoner swaps. What they also did was continue to insist that Obama do everything possible to bring Bergdahl home, and made a point of complaining when it didn’t occur.
Appalling is the Rose Garden announcement by Mr. Obama. Whatever else you might think of Bergdahl, he’s not a figure that inspires admiration. Tasteless and bleh and tone deaf.
Appalling are the efforts by both parties to quickly defend what they would have condemned if a fellow named Bush was still in office, or condemn what they would have defended.
Appalling is the concerted effort by Republicans to erase their past demands on Mr. Obama to get Bergdahl released and highlight their own efforts on his behalf. So many of them are doing their very best to emulate the old Capo Frank Pentaglia in “The Godfather II” who claimed no knowledge of the Corleone Family. Yes, in the old days, he was in the olive oil business with Vito Corleone, but “Corleone Family?” Never heard of it. Rather than review the last five years and list every bit of Republican hypocrisy on this (we have a word count at Syncopated Politics) I would just like to refer you to the timeline published in the Washington Post by Jamie Fuller, and her excellent follow-up pieces. Be forewarned. We aren’t taking about general statements made years ago. Several prominent Republicans are even going so far to have recent tweets scrubbed.
I'm afraid that's the best I can do. Just appalling. All of us. The shell of what is Bowe Bergdahl is going to return at some point. Maybe we should be asking, are we even worthy of him?
June 9, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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