Leave no soldier behind – no exceptions
The deal for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s return has hardly generated the praise the Obama administration might have hoped. Hard questions abound.
Will negotiating with terrorists encourage them to snatch more Americans? Is freeing five hardened Taliban leaders too steep a price? Is Congress rightly upset by a president who may have defied the law in releasing Guantanamo detainees?
Most troubling are emerging questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture. Was he a true victim of war or a deserter whose actions jeopardized fellow soldiers called upon to search for him?
All these uncertainties invite second-guessing, even claims of partisan political machinations.
But is our cynicism about government so deep that we can’t conceive that maybe, just maybe, it does something because it is the right thing to do? Even when the reward seems opaque and the cost is great?
The principle of leaving no one behind — no matter the cost — is deeply embedded in the U.S. military. Those in uniform believe that no stone will be left unturned to get them home if they fall into enemy hands.
One of the most dangerous — but revered — missions of the Vietnam War was the U.S. commando’s attempt to rescue 65 American POWs held at North Vietnam’s notorious Son Tay prison. A 116-plane air armada, composed of fighters, gunships and helicopters, flew hundreds of miles over mountainous territory at treetop level to the prison camp — just 23 miles from Hanoi, then one of the most heavily defended areas in North Vietnam.
As the assault force attacked the camp — killing more than 100 North Vietnamese guards in the process — the raiders discovered that the prisoners had been moved and they were forced to return empty handed. Yet, when the POWS learned of the attempt, “morale soared.” According to one report, the “POWs no longer felt abandoned or forgotten.” Though unsuccessful, the raid illustrates the kind of extraordinary effort those serving expect their nation to make.
During the Kosovo war that commitment was demonstrated when scores of ships and planes, as well as thousands of U.S. troops, were mobilized to rescue one pilot — Captain Scott O’Grady — who was shot down by Serbs in 1995. A 40-aircraft task force, including helicopters loaded with Marines and backed by a flotilla of three warships with 2,000 more Marines, flew deep into enemy territory to bring O’Grady home.
This is why the tragic case of Navy Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher whose F/A-18 fighter-bomber disappeared over Iraq in 1991 still draws controversy. When evidence emerged in 1994 indicating a possible crash site, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvilli nixed a covert mission into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to look for Speicher’s remains.
Shalikashvilli may have considered the dangers were too great, but he misjudged the military ethos at stake — as well as willingness of U.S. troops to take the risk. Then-Principal Deputy Defense Secretary for Special Operations Timothy Connolly pleaded with Defense Secretary William Perry for the opportunity to launch the mission.
“I will go out the door of this conference room,” Connolly said, “I will stand in the hallway [of the Pentagon] and I will stop the first five people who walk by in military uniform, regardless of their gender. I will explain to them what the mission is; I will ask them if they will volunteer to get on the helicopters.And I guarantee you that all five of them will volunteer.”
But his pleas were to no avail. Sadly, Speicher’s remains were not repatriated until 2009.
What if a soldier held by the enemy behaves shamefully? It happens.Fourteen years after his 1965 capture during the Vietnam War, Marine Private First Class Robert R. Garwood voluntarily returned to U.S. military control only to find himself charged with collaborating with the enemy. Largely based on the testimony of former American POWs, Garwood was convicted by a court-martial and dishonorably discharged.
The answer must be no.
That said, if Bergdahl deserted or committed other crimes, he can and should be called to account. By insisting that the Army “will not look away from misconduct if it occurred,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey signaled that the military is ready to make that call.
But everyone who wears the uniform deserves to have any accounting done by Americans on American terms. In fact, accountability in the military is so important that it alone is sufficient cause to aggressively engineer his return.
In any event, we don’t punish miscreants by leaving them with the enemy.
Will America’s enemies think Bergdahl’s case is a precedent to exploit? Maybe. But negotiations and even deal-making are not the only U.S. options: who wants to be on the receiving end of a SEAL team raid? Viewing the fate of the Somali hostage-takers in the film Captain Phillips might educate any doubters.
Regardless, commitments matter. When we send our troops in harm’s way for any purpose they have to be confident that their country will try to get them home.
Yes, a real price might be paid for Bergdahl’s release; upholding values is not cheap. Yet as Americans we simply cannot toss aside the cherished military ethos of leaving no one behind.
How this exchange was handled may be justifiably questionable, but why it was done is not.
PHOTO (TOP): Soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swampy area in Vietnam, 1969. Department of Defense/U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Aerial view of Son Tay prison, 23 miles from Hanoi in North Vietnam, where up to 100 American prisoners were held. U.S. Military
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Pilot Scott O’Grady is comforted by Captain T. Hanford (L) as he breaks down in tears during a news conference, June 10, 1995 . U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
PHOTO (INSERT 3): UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, or Hueys. Courtesy of U.S. Army