Bowe Bergdahl and the Price of American Values

Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve worked up a good rage-lather over transparent political calculation and hypocrisy, if only because my cynicism has matured to the point that I foolishly believed I’d seen everything. However, events over the last week have reminded me that as long as the universe keeps expanding, there will always be room for more.

Today’s barely-constrained rant comes courtesy of the right-wing response to the release of America’s last Prisoner of War from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been in enemy captivity since June 2009. The news of Bergdahl’s release was met with celebration and relief from the dozens of GOP Senators and Congressmen who have spent the last few years making public statements of support and pressuring the President to act to bring him home safely.

I’m just kidding. That’s what sane, responsible adults would be doing.

Instead, the GOP is busy trying to scrub evidence of their previous support from Twitter (as if that ever works) and begin beating the bushes for impeachment proceedings against the President. That’s right, the party of yellow ribbons and “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers is considering ways to impeach the President for freeing an American service member from captivity. Let that sink in for a moment.

The justifications for this uproar are twofold. First, the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture five years ago are murky, and it has been alleged that he went AWOL or possibly even deserted.  Second, that his release was brokered with representatives of the Taliban for an exchange of five of our prisoners.

The implication here is that A) Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom wasn’t worth five Taliban fighters because he’s been accused of desertion, and that B) Negotiating with the Taliban was wrong because “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

Both of these contentions are misguided, shortsighted, and completely, utterly wrong.

First of all, when it comes to our service members, we have a long, proud tradition of never leaving anyone behind. When a young soldier, sailor, airman, or marine puts on the uniform of the U.S. military and goes off to fight, they do so with the knowledge and confidence that, should the unthinkable happen and they are captured by the enemy, our country will use all of its resources to get them back home safely. It’s one of the bedrock principles that has allowed us to build the most effective and dangerous all-volunteer force in the history of mankind.

Regardless of what else Sgt. Bergdahl did or did not do, he volunteered for duty and put on the uniform knowing full-well that he would be serving in combat.

Another bedrock principle of American citizenship is the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt. That is why the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture are completely immaterial to the discussion of whether or not the prisoner exchange was appropriate. He is a U.S. service member and we do not leave people behind. Period.

His guilt or innocence on the accusations of desertion  should be determined by a court-martial in accordance with the UCMJ, where he will receive counsel and be permitted to defend himself. This is simply the due process to which he has a right as both a U.S. citizen and member of the Armed Services. That is the bare minimum we owe to anyone accused of a crime, regardless of its severity.  His guilt and punishment were not the Taliban’s responsibility to decide. Period.

As far as “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” goes, it makes for a nice sound-byte, but several factors confound its application.

For one thing, we do negotiate with terrorists, as anyone familiar with the Iran/Contra scandal during the Reagan administration knows all too well. Further examples include attempts to negotiate a peace settlement between Israel and Hamas under Clinton, and a lesser-known incident back in 2002 involving a terrorist group in the Philippines and a pair of U.S. missionaries that the Bush II administration oversaw, one of which ended up dead anyway.

So in extreme circumstances, the U.S. has a policy of negotiating with bad people dating back at least thirty years and spanning multiple Presidents of both parties.

And speaking of Israel, their government has on multiple occasions traded hundreds of prisoners in exchange for a single service member, or even the mortal remains of service members. I sincerely doubt anyone would accuse the Israeli government or the IDF of being soft on terrorism.

Some have argued that we should have tried to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl instead of making the trade, implying that the President would rather negotiate with terrorists than make the “right” call and go get him. It’s just another example of the political right trying to paint him as an appeaser and sympathizer who isn’t sufficiently tough on the bad guys. The trouble with this is it’s utter nonsense as his actual record would prove to anyone not taking deep hits from the wingnut bong.

People forget or ignore the fact that this President has never shown discomfort or hesitation to pull the trigger. The Somali pirates, Osama bin Laden, the number of times he’s authorized difficult, gutsy strikes is impressive by any standard. If we had any idea where Sgt. Bergdahl had been held, you can bet a special forces team would have been sent to handle it. The fact the exchange happened at all is the best evidence that we simply didn’t have that information. Remember, they kept OBL in hiding  for years despite the largest manhunt in human history. They know how to bury people deep, and time was running out.

However, all the talk of terrorism rather misses the point here in the first place. No one is arguing that the Taliban is anything but a broken freezer trailer full of USDA Grade D pig’s assholes, but are they terrorists? According to the U.S. State Department’s official list of terrorist groups, no, they are not.

There is no doubt that the Taliban has sympathies and connections to terrorist groups, and that some of their membership likely overlaps, but when we invaded thirteen years ago, they were the ruling government, (such as it was) of Afghanistan, a sovereign nation. The five prisoners that we exchanged for Bergdahl were designated and held as enemy combatants, ( a term invented by the Bush II administration to avoid calling them POW’s and get around the regulations and oversight that comes from our treaty obligations, but that’s a whole other post).

These men were held for years without any formal charges or trial being brought against them. The justification for their continued detention was dependent on the ongoing armed conflict between the U.S. and Taliban forces for the control of Afghanistan. That conflict is formally coming to a close over the next year. Now, whether that will usher in a new phase of fighting remains to be seen, but from a legal standpoint, once we hand responsibility over to the new Afghan government, our legal justification for holding these men was going to come to an end anyway. At that time, we would have face the simple choice between freeing them, or being in violation of Article IV of the Third Geneva Conventions, a treaty we signed and therefore carries the force of U.S. law, as per our own Constitution.

So what we had here was not, legally and strictly speaking, a negotiation with terrorists, but a prisoner exchange between two waring parties as hostilities draw to a close. Which is something we have done at the close of every single conflict throughout our nation’s history, dating all the way back to our founding fathers at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

If we could swap prisoners with the British, the Spanish, the Nazis, the Japanese, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Russians, and the North Vietnamese, why the hell can’t we do so with the Taliban? Do they really pose such a unique, powerful, immediate, and existential threat to our continued survival as a country and people that we have to throw out over two-hundred years of military tradition and political policy precedent?

Are you fucking kidding me? The Taliban has never, and can never seriously threaten us in the way the rest of these examples could, (and continue to, in a couple of cases).

What you’re left with is simply an argument that we must abandon our traditions as a military and our values as a country because of a series of yes, buts. “Yes, we must respect the rules of war and our treaty obligations, but these people scare us! Yes, we believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, but he’s a deserter! Yes, we believe that no one in uniform should ever be left behind, but he used to dance ballet!”

It’s a series of hollow, cowardly excuses being made by people who only pay lip service to our values as a nation. You want more proof? Look at the way the senators and congressmen now deriding the Bergdahl trade voted on funding the VA and other veterans benefits.

That will tell you everything you need to know.

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