Service members who are lost, captured, or wounded on the battlefield take comfort in knowing that their comrades will never leave them behind.
“It was always a high priority that every soldier deployed to Afghanistan would return home. We will never leave a fallen comrade behind,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s Chief of Staff, in a statement Wednesday. “Now that Sgt. Bergdahl is back and under our control, first and foremost we must ensure his health is taken care of and he is properly reintegrated.”
But some are attempting to rewrite this rule now that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier captured and detained by the Taliban for nearly five years, has been returned to U.S. custody in a prisoner swap.
The New Republic has an interesting breakdown of the various arguments against recovering Bergdahl — most stemming from allegations he left his remote base of his own volition — but that doesn’t really make a difference.
The bottom line is, from a U.S. military perspective, Bergdahl is valuable and worthy of rescue whether he left on his own or the Taliban kidnapped him against his will. And further, blaming him for deaths that reportedly came during the search-and-rescue effort are somewhat misguided.
If he was kidnapped against his will, we would go after him.
If he was taken away from his unit, it would make sense to stay true to the “Never leave a man behind” ethos and try to recover him. It’s what he and all other soldiers would expect and what he would have deserved, especially when in Taliban hands he could face terrible treatment and possible beheading.
If he walked off as a deserter, we would still go after him.
There are a number of reasons for this, but here’s the big one up front: The military doesn’t just write someone off because we don’t like them. Saying “It was his choice, so screw him” — while easy to do — doesn’t mean we stop trying to get our own justice. That’s why the U.S. would still very much like to prosecute ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has fled to Russia.
“But it’s not about what we believe about Bergdahl,” Gary Owen writes at his Sunny in Kabul blog. “It’s about what we’d do for every one of our brothers and sisters in arms, and we never leave them behind. Even if we think he’s a dick.”
What’s more, living amongst Taliban fighters for five years also makes him an invaluable intelligence asset. As he’s debriefed, he’ll surely reveal all kinds of interesting details about habits, techniques, where he was, what he was doing, how fighters acted, and many more things we can’t glean from a drone.
“What was the alternative to searching for the wayward private? Leaving him to the Taliban?” wrote David Axe in a great essay at War is Boring. “I expect our armed forces to try to rescue any American in insurgent captivity, even if that American is a coward. Or mentally troubled. Or a jerk. Or even a deserter.”
While this issue has been extremely politicized, with many politicians now angered at the prisoner swap they advocated for in the past, it’s worth waiting for an official Army investigation and appropriate punishment if necessary.
“As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, in a statement that highlighted the treasured hallmark of American justice. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
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