If anything seemed odd to me about the return of Bowe Bergdahl as "our last captured soldier" it was the decision to open with President Obama announcing it in the Rose Garden. That seemed oddly... big, given that most Americans seemed to have no idea that Bergdahl was even missing, let alone that his return was a massive government priority. If there's a reason this story around Bergdahl's return has bloomed into something so "controversial," it's worth remembering that we're here in part because of the big deal drawn to it by the White House itself.
I've been thinking about that first move because so much of what's come up since the announcement - the questions about Bergdahl himself and his actions prior to being captured, to the controversy over the trading of prisoners for his release - stem from attempts to, in essence, fill in the blanks of a major story that was thin on initial detail. Which again brings up... what was the White House thinking? Didn't they think these details through?
Short-sightedness and an excessive faith in its own good intentions has, I think, become part of the key to understanding the Obama Administration and how it acts and reacts. It's not for lack of thinking long term that the Administration gets caught short on its actions, but too often their public relations seem to be about the immediate impact, not where the story goes a day or two later. And always, we are reminded by the Administration, they are a bunch of smart people always focused on doing the right thing. How can we question their decisions, goes their implicit response to being challenged, when their motives are always so pure?
In the case of Bergdahl, those pure intentions are summed up in a talking point - the notion that "we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield." It's a trope, really, but it's intersting, I think, that liberals have absorbed this language almost verbatim from the President's initial remarks. It's become the shield for almost all the conservative criticism of every aspect of the Bergdahl story. Is he a deserter? That's not important if "we leave no man behind." Was the deal to release prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl ill advised, possibly even illegal? That's not important if we will do whatever we can to "leave no man behind."
If Americans are often using current policy to fight the last war, perhaps the most instructive aspect of the presentation of Bergdahl is that it's meant to resolve lingering bad feelings about Vietnam. We don't discuss Vietnam much (not that we ever did), but Bergdahl's parents carefully aligned themselves with a bloc that seems to have colored the Obama Administration's response - the well organized groups of Vietnam verterans focused on "POW/MIA" issues.
Liberals are often terrible at discussing military issues and war, especially after 50 years of antiwar activism that's been blended into the DNA of left wing politics out of Vietnam. Though the idea of "leave no soldier behind" is a longstanding military tradition, just what that means in our modern conflicts has not been simple. And nowhere was that more apparent than Vietnam, where the questions of prisoners and people thought to be missing in action dragged on for years after the cessation of military involvement.
That long, difficult history, I think, provides more context for the Obama Administration's presentation of Bergdahl's rescue than perhaps anything else. The prospect of ending hostilities in Afghanistan while even or only one soldier remained in captivity had to be a concern. While Bergdahl's deteriorating health may have added a sense of urgency - though it's hard, just now, to see what medical condition changed the equation so suddenly - defusing a potential scenario of a renewed "POW/MIA" mess had to also play into the decision making.
It's also true that, since Vietnam, we've avoided a lot of the POW mess by operating most of our conflicts at a careful remove from direct combat engaging an enemy at close range. Until the wars in Iraq, and our long foray into Afghanistan, our military campaigns have largely been conducted offshore, from ships and by plane. It's worth remembering too that incidents like "Black Hawk Down" and violence at US outposts - long before Benghazi - have colored our sense of just when and where we should be and to what level we should be present - and what it means to "leave no one behind." Some kidnappings matter more than others, and sadly, that's often a tale of how visibly missing or captured they seem to be. Hence, Bergdahl's disappearance seems to have been largely undiscussed by officials rather than raise the profile of it and make it more of a cause.
The Obama Administration, I think, probably made a calculation that couching Bergdahl's return in the language of post-Vietnam POW rhetoric would silence most critics. You may be troubled by the swap, you may have questions about the gtiming... but hey, we leave no soldier behind. Amirite? That the company line failed to take hold, and failed to stop all debate is a reminder that we aren't, in fact, fighting the last war. Such platitudes have become, well, kind of simplistic. Americans understand that our conflicts and our role in the world is actually rather complicated and however important it is to leave no one behind, we will still ask... at what cost? Amd for what reasons? And of course, questions about Bergdahl stem, in part from trying to hide his POW/MIA status for as long as they did. "We got him back1" Well, gee, did we know he was missing?
Of course, part of this story is the optics of opposition - conservatives looking for any and all reasons to oppose Obama, no matter what. And that antwar DNA of the left doesn't help liberals try to take the high ground - parroting a line about "leave no soldier behind" can't stop cold a right wing more plugged into the military community and more hawkish on defense issues. The questions, especially, around just what sort of soldier Bergdahl was, and his behavior years ago should have been better anticipated, and better answered. And probably would have been, if there was a left as plugged into military issues as the right remains.
Moreover, though, there's an underlying abivalence around all of this that actually has everything to do with Vietnam and the ways we try not to, ever, rethink what happened then and why. Our ambivalence, as a nation, about retrieving every soldier, every body, is very real and very much about the painful realities about whetehr or not we really want American militray involvement ever, anywhere. We're embarrassed to admit, fundamentally, that Americans like wars best when no American has to be captured or killed. We like being seen as simply a force for good. We hate being reminded that war is messy, and difficult, and that people die and others will treat people horribly. Leave no soldier behind... but do we have to send them out there at all?
No one wanted Bowe Bergdahl left behind. But it's instructive, I think, that so many of us, for so long, really didn't even know Bowe Bergdahl was missing, or why. And it's simplistic, really, for the Obama Administration to have thought any and every question about Bergdahl and his release gets absolved by "leave no soldier behind." The problem of POW and MIA soldiers isn't who we leave... it's who we sent into battle to begin with. And why.