The release of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl has raised in the United States many of the same difficult questions and recriminations Israel has faced over the years.
The Bergdahl trade, in which five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were released in exchange for Bergdahl, has sparked intense discussion about the efficacy and morality of such trades.
For people familiar with how Israel has dealt with similar decisions, the trade was less shocking than it seems to have been for some American observers. The moral difficulty of freeing terrorists in exchange for a captive soldier was last a matter of front-page news with the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011.
Some Canadians, including us, were aghast at comments made in advance of Shalit’s visit here last year. The Jewish Tribune, the voice of B’nai Brith Canada, published an inflammatory letter calling Shalit a “stumblebum” and blaming him for his own misfortune. A tepid article in the same newspaper seemed to draw into question the decision to fête the young man with a cross-Canada tour. Shalit, who spent more than five years as a Hamas captive in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, was freed in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners, some of whom were top-level terrorists. The freed Palestinians were greeted as triumphant heroes on their return to their homes, with crowds in at least one West Bank town waving Hamas flags (at a time when Hamas was out of favor in the Fatah-controlled area) and chanting, “We want another Gilad Shalit.”
The Bergdahl case has added complications. While the Tribune published speculation that effectively any soldier who allows himself to be captured has failed in his duty and contributed to his own situation, Bergdahl’s abduction was a direct result of his decision to walk away from his base in eastern Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, given the location, he fell into Taliban hands and was held for five years. Some of the American commentators have suggested that their country traded five Taliban not for an American soldier, but for a deserter. In fact, Bergdahl was promoted in rank during his captivity, so military brass clearly do not view his actions that way.
Fears arose for Bergdahl’s long-term health when a video was released earlier this year showing him gaunt. President Barack Obama took a “no apologies” approach to criticism, insisting that the country he leads leaves no soldier in the field.
Responding to fears that the five Taliban releasees might return to kill Americans, Obama’s Secretary of State took on a familiar pose. John Kerry called such concerns “baloney.”
“I am not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved, but they also have an ability to get killed if they do that,” said Kerry.
To make the issue more inflammatory, the New York Times and other media have explored theories – advanced by some within the military, including at least one member of Bergdahl’s battalion – that the search for Bergdahl led to the deaths of six to eight fellow soldiers. The Times concluded that circumstances around “the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive.”
The United States is dealing with the moral quandary of trading human beings in war. The Israeli military, governments and public have faced this unsavory choice many times over the years in the country’s extraordinary situation of almost ceaseless war, insurrection or threat of external violence. Just as some Palestinians chanted, “We want another Gilad Shalit,” American critics of the trade have warned that the deal puts a price on the head of every American soldier and might encourage future abductions.
One of the striking things about the American and Israeli examples of prisoner swaps is that, in Israel, politicization of such deals has been somewhat muted, particularly in the context of the vibrant discourse of Israeli politics. In the United States in recent days, however, these issues have been grist for the mill. There should be a degree of transparency around such prisoner exchanges and a society should openly discuss the morality behind them and the compromises we might be expected to make in life-and-death military situations. Still, the American discussion seems overly politicized.
These are painful, ugly and nauseating choices. There are many variables in each individual case. Ultimately, there is a reliance on the value respective militaries place on protecting their own. In a better world, people would never be forced into these kinds of decisions. The world that we live in, sadly, makes such choices sometimes necessary.