Blaming Bergdahl: A Case in Political Sensationalism

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was the last remaining prisoner of war in Afghanistan after being captured in 2009 by the Taliban, was released to U.S. forces on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. When this news broke in the United States it was greeted at first with celebration and joy, a glowing affirmation of America’s commitment to leaving no soldier behind. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the afterglow quickly faded into partisan bickering, cynicism, and derision, as well as careful evaluation and criticism of the actions of both the administration and Sgt. Bergdahl.

Many were none too pleased that five Taliban leaders, including some top officials, had been released, leaving them free to kill again. There are also fears that this deal gives terrorists more incentive to kidnap Americans, since it shows them that Americans are willing to negotiate. The Obama administration also broke a law which says they must give Congress thirty days notification before releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, which the administration defending by saying they had reason to believe Bergdahl’s health situation was urgent enough to warrant immediate action.

Recently, much of the controversy has shifted to Bergdahl himself. He’s been criticized as a deserter who caused good men to get killed searching for him, with some of his former platoon-mates criticizing the prisoner exchange. Even Bergdahl’s parents have not been safe from backlash and even death threats.

All of these criticisms are misplaced. It’s worth analyzing and bringing to light the administration’s behavior in retrieving Bergdahl, and if Bergdahl was a deserter he should get due process (after months of healing and rehabilitation, of course). However, none of this should stop us from celebrating the (possibly life-saving) return home of an American. Red tape aside, the administration pursued the moral route. One can imagine the even more scathing criticism that would have erupted had Bergdahl died in the enemy’s possession.

While we are debating whether or not Obama should have talked to Congress, or if Bergdahl was a good guy or not, the group that was ultimately behind this whole mess—the Taliban—is not being dealt with or talked about in a way befitting their crimes. Most of the controversy has centered on the victim and the savior, instead of the perpetrator of the crime.

There are some real silver linings to Bergdahl’s return. The New York Times reports that a senior Obama administration official hopes that “having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues,” such as broader peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government. On the other hand, General James N. Mattis, appearing Sunday on CNN, noted that, in regards to the specific group that captured Bergdahl, “there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy… [because] we were concerned that Bowe Bergdahl could end up dead.”

As humanists, we’re inclined to be skeptical. In fact, we should be skeptical of our government’s actions, of the released Guantánamo prisoners, and of Bergdahl’s actions prior to being captured. Just don’t do so at the cost of treating Bergdahl as a political tool and neglecting his worth as a human being, as has been the convention since his return.

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