As Americans we owe it to our soldiers, sailors and airmen to bring them home safely from war. This was the sentiment that President Obama expressed when he was interviewed by Brian Williams of NBC on Thursday evening, and there is likely not an American who does not agree. As Americans we owe more gratitude to our military. The recent VA scandal is a true stain on the country’s conscience.
Obama also asserted that when an American is a p.o.w., we must negotiate with the enemy to gain release.
Assuming the president is correct, are there limits to the negotiations with the enemy? Israel, while living in a state of constant fierce attacks by terrorists, has an official policy of not negotiating, and yet through third parties has released countless criminals, masterminds of rockets attacks and outright murderers. Perhaps Obama is right in this case. History will likely be the judge. Jewish law obligates Jews to redeem Jewish captives whenever possible. The mitzvah is so central, according to several legal codes, that even communal charity funds can be tapped for implementation. Does a parallel exist for Americans and American servicepersons?
Yet in the thirteenth century, after he was captured in order to be paid ransom for his release, Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg published a halachic decision from his jail cell. It banned the community from ransoming him. He argued that more Jews would become subject to kidnapping for the ransom they could bring in.
Was the president correct? Those five released were not in Gitmo on vacation. They were awaiting trial for terrorist acts against the United States. Was the price of their release fair or excessive? Only History will tell.
What remains especially unclear is how Seargent Bergdahl ended up imprisoned. Was he a hero, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice proclaimed on national television? Reports from the field seem to indicate that he was at very least AWOL and perhaps even a deserter or worse, a traitor who collaborated with the Taliban. Only today did reports come from Administration sources that Bergdahl had been tortured.
There is no need to wait for History to assess Bergdahl. He needs to be held for court martial. If he was AWOL, he should serve time in the brig. If he was a deserter, the laws of war consider desertion in wartime to be a capital offense, and that result might be considered by the court. If a traitor.... And if he truly was innocent, and the absence from his stations is a coincidence, he must be exonerated. However, it is not the security advisor’s duty to prejudge the court, nor the president’s. If indeed Bergdahl was a deserter or worse, this also must force all to question the price for his release.
On a related point, if Afghanistan truly wants to be a democratic country, and if the United States is leaving that region before that end is reached, then the war is not over. Abandonment does not end a war, it only marks our refusal to participate. The people of Afghanistan may be left a mess magnified by the long American presence. The United States may no longer want to be there, and the American people may be hard pressed to support the continued involvement of American forces, particularly given the high cost, but that does not describe the end of a war. President Obama and others who proclaim the end of hostilities need be especially careful of how they parse words. Americans must not forget the extensive criticism by Candidate Obama and other Democrats of President George W. Bush for declaring “mission accomplished” in Iran.