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Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

In that context it’s worth noting that six former members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s platoon were interviewed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, and to a person they opposed the Bergdahl deal. And it’s not simply based on how Bergdahl conducted himself. They made it clear they wouldn’t want or expect a similar deal for their return if they had been captured. In addition, according to this story in Time, the president’s actions overrode officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities who had successfully fought off release of the five Taliban members in the past. So when the president says, as he did yesterday, that his actions simply reaffirm the “basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind,” it may be that this principle isn’t as basic or self-evident as he thinks. What the president did to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has rankled a lot of people in uniform, who presumably have some understanding of what their country owes those who are captured.

As a general matter, then, I believe that releasing experienced jihadist commanders in exchange for an American soldier is too high a price to pay, even as I understand why others would disagree with me.

This case, of course, is complicated–at least for some of us–by the fact that based on the publicly available evidence, including reported interviews with those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have been a deserter. If that’s the case, the moral question moves from swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier to swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier who betrayed his country. They are rather different things.

Citizenship isn’t simply what our nation owes us; it’s also what we owe our nation. There is reciprocity involved. The dictionary definition of citizenship is “the condition or status of a citizen, with its rights and duties.” [Emphasis added.] When an individual breaks faith with his country–when there are grave violations of duty–how his country views him and treats him ought to change. Mass murderers are citizens, too, but we rightly treat them differently than we do those who abide by the law. Under some circumstances we deny rights, including in some instances the right to life, to American citizens.

What makes this deal even more troubling for some of us is that several genuine American heroes may have died in order to free an individual who deserted them. If that’s the case, and more investigation has to occur before we know for sure, that has to be factored in as well. Mr. Obama spent a lot of time talking in moving terms about Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents. Perhaps someday he’ll find it within his heart to talk in equally moving terms about the parents and spouses and children of those who bore such a high cost trying to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The parents of a deserter have had the honor of standing next to the president in the Rose Garden. Will the parents of the heroes who tried to free him be accorded the same honor?

Let me now offer up a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of the argument that the five released terrorists return to the battlefield and as a result 50, or 500, or 5,000, or 50,000 Americans die as a result. Would those who favor this deal continue to defend it? If not, how many dead Americans tip the scales from supporting to opposing it?

My point is that this kind of decision often involves an element of ethical consequentialism. It’s not self-evident to me that if the result of winning the release of a man who deserted is the destruction of a large American city, securing that release is morally justifiable. To be clear: I’m not saying that the release of Sgt. Bergdahl will result in such an event; I’m simply saying that most of us would properly take into account what the consequences are. Yet some of those who defend the deal insist that what follows from it need not be taken into account.

Our nation has a special responsibility to those who put on the uniform, but they also a have special responsibility to our nation. They agree to uphold a code of conduct. By the accounts of those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl failed in his responsibilities. Which is why some of the strongest reaction against this deal comes from those in the military who have actually served our nation with honor and distinction; who felt summoned by a country whose voice (to paraphrase George Washington) they could never hear but with veneration and love. 

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