We never leave troops behind. We don’t negotiate with terrorists.
Those core U.S. commitments, to the soldier, the country and the world, came into conflict when Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban and the government saw only one way to get him back: in essence, make a deal with terrorists.
The debate over Bergdahl rages on multiple fronts, touching on whether the U.S. came out on the short end in a bargain that freed five Taliban captives, whether the soldier who walked away from his post was disloyal to country, whether adversaries will see more gain in capturing Americans, whether the administration was justified in acting without notice to Congress, and more.
What’s clear in the complexities is that the age-old vow to retrieve the captured or the fallen proved more potent than the refusal to make deals with those who don’t fight by the rules.
Each ethos runs deep in the American conscience, yet has been violated through history, notably in the age of terrorism, where traditional standards of warfare, spying and negotiating are run through a hall of mirrors.
Bergdahl and the five Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees traded for his freedom were captives in an undeclared, unconventional and open-ended war that never fit neatly into the Geneva Conventions, U.S. military doctrine or slogans about how to behave.
THE SOLDIER’S CREED
History is replete with extraordinary acts to bring home the lost and fallen.
The U.S. Army’s Warrior Ethos and the Soldier’s Creed both swear, “I will never leave a fallen comrade,” and all the services place a premium on returning the missing, captured and dead. Often this comes at great cost, as in the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in the attack on U.S. helicopters and the subsequent rescue attempt.
And a soldier need not be a hero to qualify for a rescue mission or prisoner swap. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, tortured as a captive in the Vietnam War, says Bergdahl was just as entitled as himself, no matter what the soldier was up to when he vanished.
McCain’s quarrel was over the risk that he said the deal poses for others. “We have the obligation to do whatever we can to bring any of our captured service men and women back,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But the question is at what cost, whether it would put the lives of other American men and women who are serving in danger? And in my view, clearly this would.”
To be sure, such risk assessments are not new.
The debate over Bergdahl picked up as world leaders and ordinary citizens commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The legions storming the beaches of Normandy, France, from the sea and dropping behind German lines from the sky faced snap decisions under withering fire about what to do with the wounded or trapped.
Army history tells of wounded paratroopers left behind for the sake of the mission or the survival of their units. Sometimes medics were left behind, too, because they insisted on staying with the injured.
When the Korean War ended in 1953, thousands of missing and dead American soldiers were left behind, as well as POWs, as U.S. forces retreated from North Korea. Not all the missing and dead were returned after the truce and there was strong evidence some POWs were not handed over. Today the Pentagon is still trying to retrieve remains through a process, currently stalled, of paying North Koreans to support field excavations.
A Pentagon agency responsible for helping captured troops says the mission of returning them is “truly and uniquely an indelible part of the American way.” But it’s not the only part.