Sorting out the Bowe Bergdahl and prisoner-trading mess.

So the big story right now is that the US has swapped five prisoners loyal to the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan for the return of one of our own POWs, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  Sadly, we live in a world where political interest mangles every story, making it hard for those of us who just want the facts to get by.  The point of this post is to try and dredge our all the relevant facts and to assign condemnation/praise where it belongs.

This is a situation that has been brewing for a while.  Even back in January hardcore conservative media outlets were calling for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, because wanting our soldiers home is the patriotic thing to do and, as we all know, nobody is more patriotic and nobody loves our troops more than conservatives. These efforts included PJ Media (whose page today has an article about how homofascists need to be defeated, so you can get a feel for which way they lean).  Last January PJ Media was circulating a petition that urged the government to orchestrate the return of Bergdahl by any means necessary and even included the possibility of exchanging 5 Taliban GITMO detainees.

And now that the deal is done and Bergdahl will be coming home, conservatives are responding as if it is the worst thing to ever happen:

GOP lawmakers (and even a Democrat) are scrubbing their Twitter feeds of messages celebrating the return of Bergdahl before it became a political issue.  Who can blame them for making those tweets?  It seems we should celebrate when a captured American soldier is returned.  Even superstar Republicans like John McCain are backtracking (after supporting this exact same deal a few months ago):

“These people have dedicated their lives to destroying us,” he later added.

That’s a shift from where McCain stood in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that aired in February, soon after the U.S. military obtained a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl. McCain told Cooper that originally, Bergdahl’s captors had demanded the transfer of five detainees just as a “confidence-building measure.” Once a prisoner swap was reportedly in the cards, however, the senator said he’d be “inclined to support such a thing.”

“I would support — obviously I’d have to know the details — but I would support ways of bringing him home,” he said at the time. “And if exchange was one of them, I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.”

The details haven’t really changed, so it’s hard for me to accept that McCain, PJ Media, or anybody else has changed their minds.  I think it’s more likely the GOP’s same find-any-way-to-criticize-Obama train has been fired up again.

Now Bergdahl is being painted as a traitor by the same people who were clamoring for his release a few months/days ago.  What I want to know is how much of this situation is being used to gain political ground and how much of it is actually true.  Was Bergdahl a traitor?  How much should that matter if he was?

On the more liberal side there is a point being made that immediately GOP reps arranged for interviews with some of Bergdahl’s platoon mates to trash him, suggesting political motivation.  The interviews trashing Bergdahl can be traced back to two soldiers who gave interviews to the NYT:

The Times received comment from two former members of Bergdahl’s platoon who said the soldier was a deserter who should be court-martialed.

An Army medic said he still has ill-will toward Bergdahl over the manhunt that followed his disappearance.

“Yes, I’m angry,” Joshua Cornelison, a former medic in Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday arranged by Republican strategists. “Everything that we did in those days was to advance the search for Bergdahl. If we were doing some mission and there was a reliable report that Bergdahl was somewhere, our orders were that we were to quit that mission and follow that report.”

Another member of Bergdahl’s platoon said the soldier who was held captive in Afghanistan for five years didn’t fit in.

Platoon members said Sergeant Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was known as bookish and filled with romantic notions that some found odd.
“He wouldn’t drink beer or eat barbecue and hang out with the other 20-year-olds,” Cody Full, another member of Sergeant Bergdahl’s platoon, said in an interview on Monday also arranged by Republican strategists. “He was always in his bunk. He ordered Rosetta Stone for all the languages there, learning Dari and Arabic and Pashto.”

That second one is full out bullshit.  Not liking someone because they didn’t fit in because they read too much and learned too many of our enemy’s languages is not a good reason to leave them languishing in prison.  What’s more, the soldier who gave that interview, Cody Full, is a liar:

Buzzfeed reported Tuesday morning that the interviews were set up by Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration aide who joined and then left Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign over complaints from social conservatives that he was openly gay.

In a tweet on Monday, Full thanked Grenell for “helping get our platoon’s story out.” Grenell responded by calling Full a “True American Hero.”

Grenell’s partner at Capitol Media Partners, Brad Chase, confirmed to Buzzfeed that the firm did indeed help set up the interviews. Along with the Times, Full and Cornelison also did interviews with The Weekly Standard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Chase disputed the notion that the interviews were arranged by “Republican strategists.” Pointing out that he is a Democrat, Chase called the characterization “100% inaccurate.” However, a producer for for the Michael Berry Show, a radio program that booked one of the soldiers, told Buzzfeed that Grenell was the primary point of contact for the interview.

The bolded portions are not true and easily confirmed as such:

As Gawker pointed out, Full is an unabashed conservative, using his Twitter account in the past to criticize a “libtard” and mock those who advocate a minimum wage hike.

So Cody Full is usurping this event for political purposes, but what about the medic who lamented the manhunt following Bergdahl’s disappearance?  Did Bergdahl actually just walk off his military base?  It turns out, he really did:

Then, on June 25th, Bowe’s battalion suffered its first casualty of the deployment. A popular officer, 1st Lt. Brian Bradshaw, was killed in a blast from a roadside bomb near the village of Yaya Kheyl, not far from the outpost. Though Bradshaw was in a different company, the 24-year-old’s death rocked the unit, shattering the sense of invulnerability that accompanies those who have just arrived in country. Bowe’s father believes that Bradshaw and Bowe had grown close at the National Training Center, and his death darkened his son’s mood. It was all too much for Bowe. On June 27th, he sent what would be his final e-mai­ to his parents. It was a lengthy message documenting his complete disillusionment with the war effort. He opened it by addressing it simply to “mom, dad.”

“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”

The e-mail went on to list a series of complaints: Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.” His battalion commander was a “conceited old fool.” The military system itself was broken: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”

In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.” Then he signed off with a final message to his mother and father. “There are a few more boxes coming to you guys,” he said, referring to his uniform and books, which he had already packed up and shipped off. “Feel free to open them, and use them.”

On June 27th, at 10:43 p.m., Bob Bergdahl responded to his son’s final message not long after he received it. His subject line was titled: OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!

“Dear Bowe,” he wrote. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.” He signed it simply “dad.”

Ordinary soldiers, especially raw recruits facing combat for the first time, respond to the horror of war in all sorts of ways. Some take their own lives: After years of seemingly endless war and repeat deployments, active­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.

Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away.

In the early-morning hours of June 30th, according to soldiers in the unit, Bowe approached his team leader not long after he got off guard duty and asked his superior a simple question: If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment?

Yes, his team leader responded – if you took your rifle and night-vision goggles, that would cause problems.

Bowe returned to his barracks, a roughly built bunker of plywood and sandbags. He gathered up water, a knife, his digital camera and his diary. Then he slipped off the outpost.

I am in touch with several members of the military which tend share much of my thoughts of war and politics (namely that the Afghanistan War is a monumental waste).  I asked one of them, an ex-military who wishes to remain anonymous, for their take on Bergdahl leaving his base:

…if he enlisted the army during a time of war he’s not really a conscientious objector. If you feel like you want to get out of the military there are legal avenues of doing so that don’t involve walking off a base and handing yourself over to the Taliban.

It should be noted that “handing yourself over to the Taliban” was not meant to be literal in our conversation, only that Bergdahl was placing himself in a position where he was much more likely to be captured/killed.  When I asked how soldiers were likely to react to Bergdahl leaving I was told:

 Honestly, they’d react like the guy was a fuck up, and rightfully so. It’s okay to disagree with what your government or the military arm of the government is doing. It’s not okay to deal with it like that. A lot of soldiers died looking for him.

That other soldiers died looking for Bergdahl has been confirmed in other reports, so it’s time to admit that it’s true.  Bergdahl’s actions did cost other American soldiers their lives, even if they were motivated by compassion.  So we need to admit that there is some merit to the disdain for this soldier.  We have a story of a soldier rocked by the inhumanity on display in the war who made a very poor decision about how to deal with that.  For that, he should be accountable.  I don’t fault Bergdahl for his disgust with the behavior of other American soldiers (I’ve heard similar tales from others who have been deployed to combat zones), but I do blame him for how he chose to deal with it.

Another anonymous service member told me:

I did PT this morning with some of my Soldiers and Future Soldiers. While they were in formation getting started my Center Commander had hem recite the Warrior Ethos as preparation for Basic Training. It’s the section of the Soldier’s Creed that says “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Other services have similar statements. I think we, as a nation, were right to do everything we could to bring Bergdahl home.

She makes a decent point.  We made that soldier a promise.  Regardless of his behavior, it may be on us to keep that promise.  The service member I interviewed continued:

At the same time, he was also subject to the Soldier’s Creed and he failed to live up to his end. As I understand, he had become disillusioned with the war and US foreign policy generally. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is going agree with every aspect of US foreign policy; I don’t. But there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express that, for both service members and civilians. The way he chose to express himself – walking off the base – was grossly inappropriate and put other people’s lives at risk. You know your life is at risk when you deploy, but you don’t expect it to be because someone else failed to live up to his or her responsibilities. I think he needs to be held accountable for the decision he made.

I don’t think it’s in dispute that Bergdahl should be held accountable for his actions.  But this may be construed as an argument for bringing him home, since he’s ours to punish, not theirs.

The President has acknowledged Bergdahl’s actions and has said it changes nothing:

“Let me just make a very simple point here. And that is regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity,” Obama said of Bergdahl. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”

The President also addressed the potential threats that the release of the five detainees could pose to national security. He acknowledged that there is a certain recidivism rate for former prisoners, but said that monitoring of the detainees was a condition of the exchange.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was contrary to American national security,” he said.

The question then becomes if it’s still worth the exchange to bring him home and if it was handled properly.

Right now Republicans are saying that Obama overstepped his power to arrange the deal (and are using this to call for impeachment).  It turns out the Commander-in-Chief was trying to work with Congress, but Congress had stalled and the exchange had a window of opportunity that was closing:

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he consulted with Congress for “quite some time” about potentially trading detainees from the Guantanamo Bay facility for a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan.

“We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sgt. [Bowe] Bergdahl,” Obama said in a press conference in Warsaw, Poland. “We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute and exchange, and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we did not want to miss that window.”

So I don’t fault Obama for pulling the trigger.  A decision needed to be made and it was clear that Congress wasn’t going to make it.  I don’t think Congress then gets to say “Well, we don’t like the decision that was made.”  They had the chance to make the call themselves and they didn’t.

But what of his claim that the United States won’t be in significant danger for releasing these prisoners?  While MSNBC downplayed the captives we’re releasing, Politifact (which I’m more inclined to trust), rated McCain’s assessment as mostly true.  So yes, some of these men are mass-murderers and all of them are dangerous.

However, when combat operations cease, as they are about to in Afghanistan, we generally release prisoners of war anyway.  I’m not sure if exceptions would have been made for these prisoners, but at least one of Bush’s officials has broken with the GOP to point out that these men were likely going to go free anyway.

A former Bush administration official broke with Republicans on Tuesday to defend President Obama’s prisoner exchange, arguing that since “the war in Afghanistan is winding down,” the United States would be required to return prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay back to Afghanistan.

“I don’t see how these particular Taliban officials could ever have been tried in the southern district of New York,” John Bellinger, who served as an adviser to President George W. Bush explained during an appearance on Fox News Tuesday. “They’re certainly some Al Qaeda detainees who committed actual terrorist acts against Americans who perhaps could have been tried in a federal court because they committed federal crimes, but these particular Taliban detainees I think could never have been tried in federal court.” Although some of the released prisoners posed a danger to the United States when they were captured in 2002, especially toward soldiers serving in Afghanistan, several of the detainees did not commit crimes against Americans.

If these prisoners were to go free at the culmination of the war I think Obama should be praised for getting something in return.

In situations like this, it’s hard to reduce our decisions to plain math.  But before making a decision we need to know the parameters with which we’re dealing.  The situation seems to be this:

1.  Bowe Bergdahl has a conscience, but made a very, very bad decision in accordance with that conscience that got other soldiers killed.  Does this reduce the degree to which we should expend resources to secure his return?  Possibly (though I hope nobody argues that we still have an interest in seeing him freed).  But if he’s a deserter, perhaps we should bring him home and let the military deal with his desertion.  If you think he’s culpable (as I do) then he should answer to our military and the American justice system, not rot in a prison cell in Afghanistan.

2.  The prisoners we’re releasing are very, very bad people who have ended several lives (and generally expressed no regret for doing so).  But they may have been released soon anyway, which changes things a great deal.

3.  The President was burdened with making a decision on this deal because of a lagging Congress, and was right to have made a call (even if you disagree with the call he made).

4.  GOP lawmakers are disingenuously trying to use this scenario to gain political ground, and rather than saying “Hey, we changed our minds” they’re trying to scrub the past away.  Not cool.

So I hope this has helped clear up the exact situation with this trade.  For myself, personally, I’m not sure where I stand on whether or not the trade was the right call to make.  Our soldiers do need to know that if they are captured we’ve got their backs, but in terms of pure math if any of the prisoners we released wind up taking another life, we’re no more ahead than if we’d declined the trade.  It’s a tough call to make, and I’m glad I’m not the person who had to make it.

To say I’m not sure if the price we paid for this person was too high sounds cold, but if the people we released kill more people (or arrange for more people to be killed), then releasing them would’ve been the cold thing to do, even if an American remained in captivity or even killed.  In situations where it’s possible that people will die no matter what call is made, we often let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Of course, that all changes if these men were going to go free in the near future anyway.

Like I said, I’m glad the choice wasn’t mine to make.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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