The release of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and the near simultaneous commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the D-Day invasion raises questions about the military policy of “leave no man behind,” how is it implemented, and at what cost.
You may think D-Day is a reach, so I will start with that. There are two cinematic portrayals of this event that come to mind, the classic The Longest Day and the more recent Saving Private Ryan. The latter’s opening 27 minutes, recreating the Normandy invasion, includes some of the most realistic war footage in a fictional movie. However, the movie’s storyline bothers me.
In the film, three of four Ryan brothers are killed in action. For the mother’s sake, the War Department decides to send a team to extract the surviving brother from the combat zone, hence, “saving Private Ryan.” Most of the team dies in the successful mission. The ethical and military questions are the same: Is one soldier’s life more valuable than those of others that they should die for his benefit? Or, as Pvt. Reiben asks in the film, “You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where’s the sense of riskin’ the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?”
There is a sliding scale here, depending on rank and strategic value of the protected person. But all things being equal, is this a proper mission? Think of a chess game. While you may sacrifice a pawn or another piece of lesser rank to protect a queen or king, it is a rare move to sacrifice a pawn or a piece of higher rank to protect a pawn.
Israel went through a controversial prisoner exchange when it exchanged 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped and imprisoned by Hamas for five years. In a column I wrote at the time, I also raised the Saving Private Ryan question: “Is the freedom, or life, of one person, worth the possibility of the deaths of many more?”
There are some similarities, but some important differences, in the cases of Shalit and Bergdahl, who after nearly five years as a captive of the Taliban, was returned to the U.S. in exchange for five Taliban militants from Guantanamo.
Here they are as I see them:
• Both men were in active military units.
• The captors were radical Islamists.
• Both were in captivity years prior to release.
• Both Israel and the United States had policies of “leave no man behind.”
• Both countries had policies of not negotiating with terrorists.
• The number of prisoners exchanged was disproportionate.
• The swaps had high propaganda value to the enemy.
However, there are marked differences:
• While Shalit was kidnapped, Bergdahl left his post of his own volition, raising the question of whether he was AWOL, a deserter, or a defector. He had a history of leaving his post.
• It is alleged that American forces died in search and rescue missions to find Bergdahl.
• Some claim that Bergdahl was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, and came to sympathize or identify with his Taliban captors. It was not necessary to raise this defense in the case of Shalit. I find it interesting that, according to his father, Bergdahl is “having trouble speaking English.” While some former captives have reported similar language difficulties after release, others find it unlikely that a person forgets his native tongue.
In addition, with regard to Bergdahl’s release, the official rationale keeps on changing: declining health (based on a months-old video), danger of execution if the deal was publicized prior to the exchange, etc.
Also, there is the allegation that the Bergdahl swap was meant to further the Obama administration’s stated goal of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The five detainees in the swap are Taliban commanders and are considered by Sen. John McCain as “the hardest of the hard-core.”
This seems a situation of life imitating art. Those who follow the series Homeland will note the similarities between its lead character, Nicholas Brody, and Bergdahl. Ironically, Homeland is an Americanized version of the Israeli series Hatufim (Abductees), about the return of Israeli soldiers after 17 years captivity after a failed secret mission in Lebanon. A CNN news segment and MSNBC’s The Cycle also made the comparison.
But the central question remains. Are policies like “no man left behind” and “no negotiations with terrorists” viable and rational policies?
Mishnah Sanhedrin states, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
There is an equation here. We know that the prisoners released for Shalit and Bergdahl have taken lives and, given the opportunity, will take lives in the future. By such swaps, and search missions in Bergdahl’s case, are we saving one world while sanctioning the destruction of numerous others?