The commentary evoked by the recent prisoner swap – five terrorists in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – calls for context.
The trade was an unsavory arrangement, but President Obama – and Bergdahl – was out of options and time. The response from the political right was predictable. Although a great deal about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture is entirely unknown, some conservatives appear to prefer to have left him in Afghanistan, without the discovery and presentation of evidence or the opportunity for Bergdahl to defend himself in person.
Of course, no soldier should be allowed to leave his post without consequences, but as a nation we don’t appreciate sufficiently the psychological stress and pressure experienced by young soldiers like Bergdahl, who enter the regimented military machine from the security of a quiet life among family and friends in small towns like Hailey, Idaho.
Consider these anecdotes from my four years in the U.S. Navy in the early ’70s: Less than two weeks into boot camp, one young sailor experienced a very public panic attack in a huge, crowded mess hall. He was subdued and hustled away, never to be seen again. A non-swimmer was forced to attempt the swimming test; he drowned.
In radio school, a sailor jumped from the third floor into the courtyard below. We never heard what happened to him. At my first duty station, a remote outpost in Western Australia, a sailor climbed the water tower and refused to come down. The base commander, a full captain, was relieved of his command and sent back to Hawaii, so we heard, for psychological evaluation.
One young sailor, raised in the swamps of Louisiana, couldn’t bear to be away from his wife for a year; he went home on leave and never came back.
Later, a sailor deserted my ship in a foreign port. And one day another sailor emerged from the ship’s engine spaces, arranged his shoes carefully on the deck, and stepped over the rail into the South China Sea. The ship reversed course and rescued him.
All of this happened during the last years of the Vietnam War, but none of it involved real combat.
So the isolation and privations of military life are challenging enough, but Bowe Bergdahl, whose mental and emotional stability is a matter of speculation, found himself in battle, as well, near the end of a 13-year war with uncertain purposes and goals and with a dubious strategy.
Our country remembers, more or less, why the war in Afghanistan was started but has largely lost interest in how it ends. We’ve asked a great deal of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Bergdahl, and when they come home we don’t always take the best care of them.
Not every soldier or sailor is a hero, and not every casualty of our wars bears physical scars. How Bergdahl behaved in Afghanistan hasn’t been established, but he volunteered to risk his life for his country, and his right to come home trumps the doubtful value of five incarcerated terrorists.
Here’s another dose of context: Try to imagine any action by President Obama, short of an Arbor Day proclamation, that his dependable conservative critics – deeply dedicated to his failure and embarrassment – would accept with respect and support. It’s difficult to do.
But it’s not hard to imagine the tumultuous attack on Obama that would have ensued if he, as commander in chief, had decided to leave Bergdahl behind in Afghanistan or let him die. Obama faced an extraordinarily difficult choice, but his decision was correct.
Unfortunately, our nation will need more soldiers and sailors in the future, and we cannot expect young women and men like Bergdahl to volunteer to serve without the assurance that, if they survive the wars, their nation will bring them home and take care of them, no matter how well their inner resources serve them – or fail them – in the face of battle.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]