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Sgt. Bergdahl becomes a political football

June 9, 2014

The freeing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years in Taliban captivity in exchange for five Taliban captives held in the military’s Guantanamo Bay prison has generated more fury than celebration.

Republican legislators rail that the Taliban prisoners are murderous, with Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claiming that three of the five are likely to return to the battle. Some are outraged the president “negotiated with terrorists,” cutting a deal with the Taliban.

Democratic legislators led by California Senator Dianne Feinstein are in high dudgeon because they weren’t given 30 day notice, as required by law.

Some in the military are furious because Bergdahl was captured when he left the base alone without permission. American soldiers reportedly lost their lives in the effort to find him. Some scorn Bergdahl as a deserter, if not a traitor.

The president has been savaged for making the trade. Bergdahl’s father has received death threats in emails. His hometown canceled a scheduled celebration, worried about violent demonstrations by outsiders.

All this, to my mind, says a lot more about the horrible divisions in America, than the actions of Sgt. Bergdahl or the president.

Our military and our country pride itself on leaving no man behind. We expect the president, our military leaders, our soldiers to do what they can to bring our soldiers back, and to free them from captivity if needed. In that tradition, the freedom of five Taliban terrorists would be considered a minor price to pay for one American soldier.

That proud principle applies to every soldier. It doesn’t apply only to the courageous or the brave. It doesn’t apply only to whites or blacks. It doesn’t apply only to officers and not privates. We leave no man — and in today’s military, no woman — behind, period.

As for negotiating with the Taliban, they were holding Bergdahl captive — reportedly keeping him in a metal cage in the dark after he tried to escape. Who else would we negotiate with? It doesn’t do any good to negotiate with our friends. To free a prisoner of war, the president has no choice but to negotiate with our enemies.

The president would have been wise to inform the nabobs of the Senate ahead of time. But given the need for absolute secrecy, one can imagine why he was reluctant to involve them, no matter how senior their rank.

As for the exchange with the five Taliban prisoners, the reality is that they would have to be tried and executed or released eventually. Locking people up in Guantanamo without charges or trial is a disgrace to America’s principles. But even then, we aren’t going to keep these folks in prison forever. The U.S. is getting out of Afghanistan. The longest war in our history is coming to an end. Trading these prisoners to free an American POW is just common sense.

Are the freed Taliban future terrorists? Who knows? They’ve been in prison for over a decade. They are “graybeards” now, and their world has changed dramatically. They are going to be held in Qatar for a year. All the fulmination about the threat they pose is simply political posturing. No one really knows. What we can expect is that they will be under close watch.

According to military reports, Sgt. Bergdahl is too emotionally unstable to return home yet. Clearly he was under acute mental stress five years ago when he essentially committed a suicidal act — leaving a base to go into hostile territory in Paktika Province alone and unarmed.

If he was unstable, he wasn’t alone. According to a military study at the time, more than one in five soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan in 2009 were suffering from acute stress, depression and/or anxiety. Bergdahl had apparently gone AWOL before, but nothing was done to remove him from his post or to deal with his stress.

Serving in an outpost in a strange land under the constant threat of death puts brutal pressure on everyone. Some hold up better than others. Some act out in different ways than others. Those of us who have not been there should be the last to judge or to condemn.

Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, got it right when he said it would be “offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind, no matter what.” We should be proud of that tradition, not sacrifice it to partisan politics or senatorial privilege.