There is a big ruckus over the dubious swap that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Politicians and pundits who are usually conspicuous cheerleaders for members of the armed forces say the deal with the Taliban that liberated Bergdahl from five years of captivity in Afghanistan is a bad one and imply that Bergdahl was not worthy of rescue.
At the first report that Sgt. Bergdahl had been released, there was celebration all across the political spectrum. Much of the enthusiasm, though, quickly soured as details came out. Five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo were traded to win Bergdahl’s liberty and the Obama administration kept the deal a secret from Congress, in violation of a law requiring 30 days' notice to lawmakers before any release of Guantanamo prisoners.
The criticism has been intensified by the perception that Bergdahl was no hero and hardly a warrior. Bergdahl was a member of what one military official called a “raggedy” platoon stuck in a vulnerable forward outpost in the wilds of Afghanistan. On June 30, 2009, he walked away from his unit and was captured by the enemy.
Some insist Bergdahl is a deserter, a traitor, even a possible defector. Several soldiers who served with him hold him responsible for the deaths of comrades who searched for Bergdahl after his disappearance. It does appear that Bergdahl had become disenchanted with the American mission in Afghanistan. In that, he is not alone among members of the armed forces, but very few soldiers dishonor themselves by leaving their post as he appears to have done.
Still, though the prisoner swap may have been a desperate and unwise idea and though President Obama’s rose-colored Rose Garden celebration with Bergdahl’s parents now looks naive and foolish, the principle remains that all American captives, however compromised, need to be brought home. We give these young men and women guns and training. We call them warriors. And then we send them off to be pushed to their limits in a living hell. Rather than feeling like heroes, many just feel lucky to survive. A few, like Bergdahl, prove they should never have become soldiers in the first place.
For their service and sacrifice, we owe them respect and all the support they need. But if we pretend they are somehow a breed apart, immune from the vulnerabilities and frailties we all share, then we are only feeding our own fantasy of war as a ramped-up video game. The constant characterization of every soldier, sailor, airman and marine as a “warrior” or a “hero” gives a false image of who these men and women are and how much can be asked of them and makes it much easier for politicians to send them off to multiple tours of duty in wars that, arguably, should not be fought in the first place.
The harsh truth is that thousands of those who died fighting for their country in Vietnam and the wars that have followed gave their lives unnecessarily. America would be no less free had most of those battles never been fought. If we truly honored our troops, we would ask them to put their lives on the line only when the mission is clear and justified.
Americans should be more quick to condemn the flag-waving politicians and armchair generals in cloistered think tanks who rush the nation into wars and slower to judge those troubled soldiers, like Bergdahl, who face the searing reality of battle and flinch.