Before deploying to Iraq, I remember the detailed briefings we had in case we were captured by the enemy. We provide recognition criteria and personal identification details just in case we actually needed to be rescued. I didn't think that scenario would actually play out, but I took comfort in knowing that there was a plan in place for me and each one of my Marines. I fully understood that the military was not going to leave me behind.
That premise resides at the core of our military beliefs, and we are all entitled to it, even Sergeant Bergdahl. Are the circumstances surrounding his capture troubling and unusual? Certainly. But since when do we not believe in the concept of innocence until proven guilty, and how can a country that prides itself on freedom, democracy and second chances turn its back on a soldier in his most dire time of need? All we really know right now is that Sergeant Bergdahl volunteered to serve in our Army when many others ignored that call, fought for his country in very trying circumstances, and then wandered off his post in Afghanistan. In fact, some of his peers said that he seemed enthusiastic about fighting, and that he wanted to take the fight to the enemy and do the mission of the infantry.
Certainly we trust our military justice system enough to conduct a proper investigation, and if conditions warrant it, prosecute Sergeant Bergdahl for the appropriate offenses. And without knowing that he defected to the enemy, doesn't that have to be our default option? There is no doubt that walking off that base put others in danger in Afghanistan; while that certainly affects President Obama's ultimate decision, it does not automatically deny President Obama the choice to trade five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay for Sergeant Bergdahl.
Some have argued that this trade is precedential, that we now have abandoned our refusal to negotiate with terrorists. However, let's not forget President Carter's negotiations with Iranians who took dozens of American hostage in Tehran in 1979, and President Reagan selling arms to Iran, in violation of our arms embargo, to secure the release of seven American hostages held by Iranian terrorists in Lebanon. Even Republican thought leader Charles Krauthammer acknowledges that we already negotiate with terrorists, and so do our partners. In fact, Israel recently agreed to a deal with Hamas to exchange 1,027 prisoners for just one Israeli soldier.
Further, it is probably unrealistic to believe that only now will our enemies consider kidnapping our forces, or our citizens for that matter, and use them for a mutual exchange. This has been a common tactic of many major terrorist groups, including Hamas, the FARC and al-Qaeda. Also, it is impossible to say how effective the five newly-released combatants will be against us. While they certainly have leadership skills and a commitment to fight for their cause, these fighters have been removed from the battlefield for approximately 10 years, have had no communication with anyone in their home countries, and will eventually return to a diminished, and very different, Taliban than they remember.
But I am far less concerned about these five individuals than I am about the thousands of individuals who have rallied to the extremist jihadist cause because of our military's actions at Abu Ghraib and in utilizing Guantanamo itself. Whether you agree with our Guantanamo Bay policy or not, it is important to recognize what former U.S. Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora explained to Congress in 2008: "The first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo." And further, General Petraeus has said that "We don't need [Guantanamo Bay], and it's causing us far more damage than any good we get for it," while former Secretary of State General Colin Powell stated, "If it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo. Not tomorrow, but this afternoon. I'd close it."
Sergeant Bergdahl told medical officials that his captors locked him in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape. Back in February, Senator John McCain said that he might support an agreement for Bergdahl that included some kind of prisoner exchange. Representative Richard B. Nugent, a Republican lawmaker whose three sons have served in the military, introduced two resolutions affirming that the United States would not abandon him in Afghanistan. And John Bellinger, a former administrative lawyer for President Bush, said that it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release these same prisoners shortly after the end of 2014 anyway, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan.What do these four statements have in common? Justification for bringing home Sergeant Bergdahl, letting our military justice system do its job, and reaffirming to every service member that we will not leave anyone behind.
Let's take the politics out of this action. Let's instead focus on rebuilding our broken VA system and building careers for our transitioning service members and military spouses. And as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said, let's remember that Sergeant Bergdahl, like any American, is innocent until proven guilty, and "the questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity."
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