A Deal With The Devil: How We Got Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl

June 9, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Credit:  Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

One of my favorite movie lines comes at the end of “The American President.”  After being excoriated by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, President Andrew Shepherd storms into the Press Briefing Room to deliver an apologetic for his presidency and his personal life with the cameras rolling.  One of the things he says in this press conference that has long stuck with me is, “America isn’t easy.”

I couldn’t agree more.  In twenty-first century America, we face tough challenges.  We have to navigate complex issues.  America isn’t easy.

The latest example of this truism comes to us courtesy the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.  He was captured by the Taliban in 2009.  On May 31 of this year, he was released.  If this was all there was to this story, this would be a story of unambiguous triumph and joy.  But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  And the details here are sketchy, conflicting, and disturbing.

First, there is the detail of how Sergeant Bergdahl was captured.  He claims it’s because he fell behind on a patrol and the Taliban swept in and abducted him.  The Taliban claims he was captured drunk and wandering off base.  According to an investigation by the Pentagon, Bergdahl may have deserted his unit – walking away from his post, which led to his capture.  In an email dated June 27, 2009, Bergdahl expressed a rising dissatisfaction with his military service:  “I am ashamed to be an american.  And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.”[1]  If Sergeant Bergdahl’s claims concerning his capture are true, this is a tragedy.  If the Taliban’s claims are true, Bergdahl was foolish.  But if the Pentagon’s story pans out, this is a story of one man’s faithlessness toward his brothers-in-arms.  How all this began matters.

Then, there is the detail of what Sergeant Bergdahl’s release cost.  Our government brokered a deal with the Taliban that released five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom.  Before this deal, no fewer than five soldiers died on missions to rescue Bergdahl – all this for a man who may have despised many of the very people who were trying to rescue him.  What Sergeant Bergdahl’s release cost matters.

So, what is the appropriate response to this sordid affair?  At this point, I think it’s best to say there is no appropriate response – not because there is no appropriate response period, but because we do not have enough facts to formulate the kind of comprehensive response that this story demands and deserves.  Thus, I am not so interested in deconstructing the details of this story itself, but I do want to address some of the ethical questions it raises.  People want to know:  “Was it right to sacrifice five lives and release five criminals for the freedom of a man who could have been a deserter?”  “What price should we be willing to pay for the civic freedom of one person?”  And, of course, “Is it ever right for the U.S. to negotiate with terrorists?”

In one sense, the saga of Sergeant Bergdahl is parabolic for the limits of human ethical decisions.  Here, we have both good and bad comingled.  Freeing a Prisoner of War – that’s good.  Sacrificing the lives of at least five soldiers and releasing five hardened criminals – that’s bad.  We did something bad to get something good.  How do you reconcile that?

Such ethical angst is perhaps best encapsulated by Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, in an interview with USA Today.  Commenting on our government’s deal with the Taliban, he notes that though the United States’ official stance is that we do not negotiate with terrorists, this is

…repeated as mantra more than fact.  We have long negotiated with terrorists. Virtually every other country in the world has negotiated with terrorists despite pledges never to … We should be tough on terrorists, but not on our fellow countrymen who are their captives, which means having to make a deal with the devil when there is no alternative.[2]

Hoffman is right.  We made a deal with the devil.  And granted, out of this deal, some good has come:  a soldier has been reunited with with his family.  But whether or not any other good comes out of this deal remains to be seen.  Questions concerning Bergdahl’s conduct still need to be asked and families who have lost loved ones in attempts to rescue this soldier still need to be comforted.  This much I do know, however:  deals with the devil are never as good as we think they are.  There are always hidden costs and huge catches.  In fact, as far as I can tell, only one deal with the devil has ever been truly successful.  It’s the one where someone said:  “Let’s make a deal.  You can strike My heel.  But I get to crush your head.

May that divine deal help us navigate the moral complexities and save us from the moral compromises of our fallen deals.

___________________________

[1] Michael Hastings, “America’s Last Prisoner of War,” Rolling Stone (6.7.2012).

[2] Alan Gomez, “Is it ever right to negotiate with terrorists?USA Today (6.2.2014).

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