Leave no soldier behind – no exceptions

By Charles J. Dunlap Jr.
June 4, 2014

dunlop -- top!

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?

helicopter -- son_tay_aerial_375The 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.

ogradyEven when it is clear that the comrade has fallen, no one is to be left on the battlefield.

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.

HELICOPTORS!Do cases such as Garwood’s — and maybe Bergdahl’s — mean we ought to somehow try to calculate in advance who is (or is not) worthy of our best efforts to bring them home?

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

 

15 comments

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I believe the motto is no one left behind, and not no one left behind unless Fox News starts spreading gossip about them. At this point the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture is speculation and rumor. And it doesn’t matter anyway. He is one of our soldiers and he needed to be brought home. If the military has a beef with him, then they will deal with it. I have never been so disappointed by the American people as I am right now. And before you Fox viewers start whining, I am not talking about America the country, I am talking about you. These are two very different things.

Posted by CDShaffer | Report as abusive

Never negotiate with terrorists – No Exceptions.

There I fixed it for you…

Posted by TheNewWorld | Report as abusive

I believe we shouldn’t leave anyone behind, but, negotiating with terrorists and agreeing to the transfer of 5 hardened terrorists who will continue to kill Americans is wrong.
As with most decisions of the Obama administration, this was done for political purposes.
This will also encourage our enemies to capture more Americans for hostage and bargaining. Just a bad decision all around!

Posted by smit1610 | Report as abusive

I have been reading about this topic for several days now. I am not a vet, so I do not have a fraternity bias.
I am confused as to how many commenters are willing to accept hearsay – to pre-judge a POW without due process. Many of those commenters also claim to be vets.
I recently commented to a vet co-worker that, in my opinion, it is stupid that the Armed Forces have orchestras and bands, one can literally serve as a marching band member and have all the benefits of a combat vet. His response: A vet is a vet. I am jealous of this loyalty!
In conversations about Bergdahl (or Manning among others) there is a willingness to divide vets into deserving and non-deserving categories prior to discharge or their day in court. If vets are now willing to abandon their own, why should I support them, any of them, at all? Shall I not use my vote, dollars and voice to bring about reduced military spending, block local memorials, demean the validity military service based on specialty/theater, etc. Following the logic given in the Bergdahl conversation, why not let all POWs, who fall behind enemy lines, rot unless their character can be deemed worthy of rescue? Reaction to Bergdahl’s release reminds me of the blanket accusation of baby killing the Vietnam vets got when they got back… Very sad.

Posted by Whatsnewisold | Report as abusive

the quoted is not leave no man behind(unless he is being held by terrorists). President Obama did the right thing and the Obama haters are making fools of themselves.

Posted by vamonticello1 | Report as abusive

We can see from TheNewWorld’s and smit1610′s comments just how far the US has fallen. And I bet neither has served in the US military. It’s obvious. Their sense of honor has been eaten by their hatred for our President. And for what? This President has done nothing deserving of any American’s hatred. They are among the persuaded, tools to be used in advancing the agenda another.

Mr. Dunlap has written an excellent commentary. Thank you, sir, for taking the time to do so. It’s good to see not all of us have lost our values.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

unequivocally the right decision. Five more militants angry at the U.S, is a drop in the bucket, if they want to destroy the U.S., the line is long.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

this was a prisoner exchange…not an armed assault into an enemy compound.

before “storming into enemy lands” one must consider the costs of rescue…in this case there was enormous risk…but “the deal” was a sound one as no one was killed during the exchange.

any soldier talking smack about this is a nut. anything can happen on the field of battle..you can find yourself a prisoner of war.

obviously there is no Geneva Convention in Afghanistan…it is interesting that they abided by any terms actually.

I think someone less than a political nut case would point this out…but they’re all Zionist wackos now I guess. Even the Pope bows down before them.

Perhaps we should ask him about the meaning of being “disappeared.” Is that the manner by which us Christian Sinners must act now? “To be erased is to be glorious”? His views on capitalism are indeed enlightening. How about his views on needless sacrifice then?

“Many men died for Bo.”

Indeed they did.
Indeed they did.

Would appear he had two people praying for him…and a President who prayed with them.

Of the United States.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

The obama administration did not do the trade because they believe in “no soldier left behind.” If they believed that, then why did they refuse to help those in Benghazi, and the marine stuck in Mexico?

Posted by Trent88 | Report as abusive

I am serving in the Army and I can tell you the decision to give up 5 Taliban for 1 American, deserter or not, is universally opposed among my peers. We enlisted to put our individual lives on the line while defending America; giving in to terrorists, even allowing them to choose the EPW’s they get in return, goes 100% against this.

The examples in this editorial are irrelevant. If you asked me whether we should send Rangers or SF to go get Bergdahl I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes. But to give the enemy exactly what they want, especially right after telling them exactly when we’ll be leaving, is absolutely the wrong answer. Those that aren’t in the military shouldn’t be talking about “values” because they have no idea what military values really are.

Posted by Bastiattheman | Report as abusive

Like any controversial issue, merit can be found for both sides of the argument. A question to answer is: do we always absolutely apply policies that may not be appropriate in every case? Consider:
1. The time-honored “leave no man behind” promise is meant to show that we’ll never break faith with the warfighter. But what if the warfighter decides to quit his post and has already broken that faith?
2. As Bastiatheman stated, the article’s examples are irrelevant. How do you compare the attempts to get back individuals captured while following orders with someone who shirked it?
3. How do you tell a soldier (or possibly those they left behind) that the sacrifices they made capturing 5 high-ranking enemy are so easily given back? By easily, who got the MUCH better end of this deal?

No, I can’t accept that we’ll absolutely, no questions asked, do anything possible to get back someone who has put so much at risk, and apparently did so quite willingly. By doing so, we have broken faith with those who HAVE AND WILL do their duty diligently and honorably.

Posted by DPM267 | Report as abusive

I can not speak to military values, but I believe this article gives a good perspective. And it’s not like the 5 from Gitmo were ever tried and convicted of being terrorists. Nor would any of the senators allow them to be transferred to their state for trial. So, why not use them as collateral to bring home the American?

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

no one cares about the Army when they lose…but they do care about their soldiers.

They still fight and die long after all hope is lost.

If there is any soldier who wishes to go to Bo Bergdahl’s parents place and explain this view to them..by all means. Trying his family “in the Court of Fox News” is simply put the lowest point in the History of the American Republic.

Should we simply be honest with ourselves and say “we’d rather have Bo and all the other traitors dead”?

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

‘No one left behind’ is important but it doesn’t mean at any cost. The cost in this case is a dangerous precedent that very well may mean more soldiers are killed or captured. Bergdahl’s case is similar to Garwoods and other soldiers who gave up and wandered to the enemy while at war. We always want them back regardless, but we don’t change policy over one person whether they are a traitor or hero. This was a shameful exchange and while I’m glad Bowe is back, there will be a cost.

Posted by Stickystones | Report as abusive

I accept that the exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner-of-war exchange and not “negotiating with terrorists” — else we could often not draw clear lines with prisoner exchanges. For instance, were we dealing with folks more worthy of negotiation when the U.S. exchanged prisoners with the Nazis during WWII as document in the book “Mercy Ships . . .”? (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/mercy-ship s-9781852855727/ ).

But I reject that an “at any cost” criteria can possibly be justified. A prisoner exchange is the product of negotiation, and negotiation makes no sense if one doesn’t enter it with a reservation price, above which the proper decision is to walk away. Otherwise, the “at any cost” criteria guarantees we will end up paying an extreme and excessive price. That is what is alleged by critics of the deal for Bergdahl, and that is a reasonable debate to have.

Yes, the U.S. goes to extraordinary lengths and risks much in rescue operations; that shows the value we place on U.S. soldiers held prisoner. And yes, prisoner exchanges are legitimate in principle. But no, these facts taken together do not imply that any prisoner swap consummated “at any cost” is wise.

Posted by rboltuck | Report as abusive