Our View: Bergdahl’s return a victory, but not a celebration

06/05/2014 12:00 AM

06/06/2014 12:10 AM

What could have been a feel-good story – the freeing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years in the hands of the Taliban – has, instead, become another opportunity for rancor between people who despise President Barack Obama and those who don’t. Even having a uniform on the former captive doesn’t make this story any easier to swallow for many of the former.

And perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s a murky situation, one that involves freeing some very bad people for a soldier who has been denounced by former comrades.

For most of us, this conflict is out of sight and out of mind. How many even knew of Bergdahl’s situation before his release?

But for the brave 1 percent who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, this war often has been harrowing. While about 2.5 million have been deployed, some 400,000 have served three or more tours of duty defending America’s interests. Regardless of any political shadows, Bergdahl’s situation provides one more startling example of the pronounced costs of war in the era of an all-volunteer military.

There are questions about how Bergdahl became separated from his unit and fell into the hands of the Taliban. He appeared in several propaganda videos during his captivity, but he might have been forced through torture.

Some veterans groups say Bergdahl is a deserter. Others say his departure from his unit cost the lives of several fellow soldiers who searched for him. The military plans to investigate, but Rear Adm. John Kirby noted that Bergdahl was never classified as a deserter. He reminds us that people sign up to fight for all sorts of reasons and react differently under the stress of combat.

After nearly five years in harsh captivity, Bergdahl returns a damaged soldier. It will take years for him to fully recover.

The five Taliban detainees released in exchange from the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba are dangerous. Two allegedly had ties to al-Qaida and links to operations that killed American and allied troops. Safeguards and assurances from Qatar that the five won’t threaten the United States again are not fail-safe. So it’s not surprising that Bergdahl’s release has become another forum for loudly arguing over the war and Obama’s foreign policy.

Critics say we shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, and the bargain struck for Bergdahl’s release was too costly. Some say the president stepped outside the Constitution – again – to release Taliban leaders without consulting Congress, which had imposed a rule on prisoner transfers to keep them outside the continental United States. We’re not that sending the prisoners to Qatar breaks that rule. If this had been a different president, would those same questions be asked? Or would they just be asked by different people? We don’t know.

We need to shut down Guantánamo Bay – it’s a colossal waste of tax dollars and a toxic stain on America’s values. Perhaps this prisoner swap gets us a little closer. There are still 149 detainees at Gitmo.

These issues will continue to be debated. For now, there’s nothing wrong with reacting the way Obama did Saturday – as much as a parent as the commander in chief. When he embraced Bergdahl’s parents, you couldn’t help but be happy for them. That their son is coming home is victory enough for them.

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