The release of the lone U.S. prisoner of war from Afghanistan raises immensely complicated issues. The case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, itself, is murky.
What should ring clear is that it demonstrates once more a cost of war. With our all-volunteer military, the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been borne by less than 1 percent of Americans. While about 2.5 million have been deployed – including 400,000 three or more times – most of us have not been directly affected.
After nearly five years in harsh captivity under Taliban insurgents, Bergdahl will return home a damaged soldier. It will take years for him to recover, physically and psychologically, and resume anything close to a normal life.
He puts another face on the stark reality that thousands upon thousands who fought in our post-9/11 wars are coming back with missing limbs, post-traumatic stress and other injuries, visible and not. That’s why the mushrooming scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs is so shameful – and why it’s so important that the problems get fixed so vets get the care they need.
Bergdahl, 28, from rural Idaho, also reminds us that people sign up to fight for all sorts of reasons and react differently when they arrive in a combat zone. There are questions about how he became separated from his platoon and ended up in the hands of the Taliban. He appeared in several propaganda videos during his captivity, but he may very well have been tortured. Some veterans groups and soldiers say Bergdahl is a deserter. The military plans to investigate, but it seems unlikely he would be punished.
It’s not surprising that since President Barack Obama announced Bergdahl’s release on Saturday, it has become another forum for loudly arguing over the war and Obama’s foreign policy.
Critics say that we shouldn’t be negotiating with terrorists, that the bargain struck for Bergdahl’s release was too costly.
It’s true that the five Taliban detainees released in exchange from the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba are dangerous terrorists, to one extent or another. Two are senior commanders who allegedly had ties to al-Qaida and links to operations that killed American and allied troops. The safeguards and assurances from the Qatar government that the five won’t threaten the United States again are nowhere near fail-safe.
Yet it’s also true that we need to shut down Guantánamo Bay – a colossal waste of tax dollars and a toxic stain on America’s values – and this prisoner swap gets us a little closer to that day. There are still 149 detainees at Guantánamo. Congress has imposed tight restrictions on transfers; some lawmakers say they should have been notified ahead of time.
These geopolitical issues will continue to be debated. For now, there’s nothing wrong with reacting the way Obama did on Saturday – much more as a parent than as commander in chief. When he embraced Bergdahl’s parents, you couldn’t help but be happy for them. Their son is coming home.