This week we got the news that the last American prisoner of war being held in Afghanistan was coming home, and in typical American fashion, the news became a scandal within 24 hours.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing in June of 2009. He was on deployment in Afghanistan at the time, and was captured by the Taliban. He's been their prisoner for the last five years. On Saturday, it was announced by the White House that he was coming home. In exchange for his release, we had agreed to release five POWs that we've been holding in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
If you know anything about American politics right now, you're probably shaking your head, saying, "I know where this is going." You're probably right. Within hours of this happening, conservative media started going off on President Obama for the trade. They claimed he'd broken the law (though none of them have cited a specific statute), that we shouldn't negotiate with terrorists, that he had released dangerous men back into the field... I could go on, but you get the point. But then something incredibly sickening happened. They turned on Sgt. Bergdahl himself.
See, allegedly Sgt. Bergdahl was captured when he deserted his post and walked off base. Additionally, at least five service members died trying to rescue him. Even more, in the days since his release, emails he wrote have been released, and in them he says he is 'ashamed to be an American' because of the things the Army was doing. He spoke of having compassion for the Afghan people and the way American service members treated them. And all of this has been used to make the trade made by the Obama administration look even worse.
Because somehow, deserting your post means you deserve to be left to die.
Fox News contributor Ann Coulter believes we should have just left Sgt. Bergdahl with the Taliban.
I recognize that there are rules in any military. There has to be. If we're going to entrust the defense of our nation to a group of people, I'd like to know that those people have promised not to leave at the moment when we need them to be there the most. If Sgt. Bergdahl really did desert his post, he should face punishment for that. But this is America. The punishment for deserting a post is a court martial, and whatever judgement is rendered by those proceedings. Being left to die is not one of the punishments proscribed by the Uniform Military Code of Justice.
Now, I understand that there are other soldiers who served with Bergdahl who are upset about this situation. That is entirely their right, especially since members of their unit died trying to rescue him in 2009. But their frustration is their own, and exploiting it for the purpose of criticizing the president is disgusting. The bottom line is this: Whether it was a good idea to trade five Afghani POWs for one American POW, and whether Sgt. Bergdahl is a deserter whose actions caused the death of five soldiers, are two totally distinct issues that need to be discussed and remedied separately.
Instead, what we've seen this week is that Sgt. Bergdahl is having his character assassinated, not because anyone really cares about him, but because it's a politically expedient tool to hit the president over the head with. Mainstream media commentators on the right are making it out like somehow his desertion makes him less worthy of the deal we made (because if Obama had made this deal to free a hero who was captured during a firefight while trying to pull a wounded buddy to safety, they would totally be okay with it. Right). They've even gone so far as to say that perhaps he was "helping the enemy" all along, and that he wasn't really even a prisoner to begin with. They're pointing to his father, who grew a long beard in solidarity with his son and learned the Pashto language so he could communicate with his son's captors. They're pointing to the emails where Sgt. Bergdahl says that the U.S. Army is a joke, and that he's ashamed to be an American. They're trying to make this into a deal to release five dangerous terrorists to free a traitor. Because President Obama is a Muslim sympathizer, remember?
War is complicated. It's horrible. It's one of the worst things that humanity has ever invented, but it's also one of the most profitable, and so we keep doing it. And in every single war, there are soldiers who see the insanity of it all, and decide to walk away. The Washington Post wrote an interesting article talking about war-time deserters, and it turns out that desertion is fairly commonplace. It is not, however, commonplace for soldiers to desert while they are deployed to an active combat zone. And while Sgt. Bergdahl did give some clues to his mental state in the last email he sent to his father, we don't know for sure what was going on in his head when he left. We do know, however, that whatever caused him to leave seemed so insurmountable in his mind that the best option was to leave his post in an active combat zone. I'm not going to sit here and judge him for that - it's not my job. It's not my job to judge his father either, who did whatever he could to feel like he was helping his son. I'm not going to judge the soldiers who are angry about this, because I've never been in their shoes.
I'll be totally honest. I don't know if I think that trading five Gitmo detainees for one American POW was a good idea. I haven't worked it out in my head yet. But I do know with absolute certainty that the circumstances that lead to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's capture are not my business. The situation needs resolving, to be sure, but it needs to be resolved by the people who lived through it and the people who are appointed to resolve it. It does not need to be dragged all over network television, as if the American public understands any of the complicated states of mind that lead any of these people to do what they did. It does not need to be used to reduce Sgt. Bergdahl to a two-dimensional monster that can in turn be used to embarrass the American president. The fact that the American public is even engaging in this conversation turns my stomach.
We should all be ashamed of ourselves.