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June 8, 2014

The Demonization of an American Soldier

By James Wall

"Leave no one behind on the battlefield" is a sacred and long-standing U.S. military commitment. President Obama honored that commitment with his carefully-negotiated prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Presidents are fair game for criticism. When they get it right, we must say so.


Cross-posted from Wallwritings

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, taken in 2009 on the battlefield in Afghanistan
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, taken in 2009 on the battlefield in Afghanistan
(Image by Sean Smith/Guardian.)
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My experience as a member of the U.S. armed services was a long time ago. It was also far removed from a battlefield. I was an Air Force public information officer during the Korean War.

I was part of a team, serving my country. All these decades later, I still feel a loyalty to, and a deep respect for, anyone who signs up for active military duty.

For this reason, though far removed from my own active duty days, I can still feel an intense fury toward the journalists and politicians who have stumbled over themselves to demonize a U.S. army sergeant who has just been saved from enemy captivity through a prisoner exchange orchestrated by his Commander in Chief.

Do these people have no shame? Do they not see that because of their need to either attack or stand apart from the President's decision, they are acting as jury and judge against an American citizen?

Do they, some of whom have also served on active duty, like Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, realize that those who judge U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, expose themselves as political sycophants?

The majority of the politicians who have rushed to demonize a 28-year-old army sergeant, are Republicans, egged on by the Republican party's media bull horn, Fox News.

It was on Fox that one talking head, angered by the long beard Sgt. Bergdahl's father has grown, blurted out, in a display of religious bigotry, "he looks like a Muslim."

Another Fox commentator added racism to her religious bigotry by saying "if his skin were darker, he would look like a Muslim."

These Fox commentators were also disturbed that Bergdahl's father had been studying Pashto, the native Afghanistan language. Why would a father learn a language his son has been been forced to use for five years? Why, indeed.

Democrats were more discrete, but just as self-serving, when they quickly turned on President Obama with whining complaints that had more to do with their political egos and political security, than with the rescue of an American soldier.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, says she was disturbed that the prisoner exchange was conducted without final consultation with her congressional committee, as mandated by recent congressional action.

Two things wrong with her demand: One, she knows that the negotiated agreement with the Taliban would fall apart if word of it leaked; and two, she knows the congress leaks like a sieve.

The President and his leadership team, including the head of the Joint Chiefs, determined that Bergdahl was in a seriously deteriorating health condition.

Feinstein told Politico that she had seen no evidence that Sgt. Bergdahl's life was in any danger.

Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat from the conservative state of West Virginia, after seeing a video of the soldier, disagreed with the decision to move quickly on Bergdahl's release. He did not think Bergdahl's condition was fragile enough to justify a swift swap.

Senator Mark Kirk, Republican from Illinois, who recently was hospitalized for a stroke, and who returned to duty in the senate with a courageous walk up the senate steps, had a different take on Bergdahl's situation. He found him to be in a shaky fragile condition.

Who you gonna believe, a senator protecting her committee prerogatives, a senator fearful of losing his Senate seat, or the President and his leadership team, who are responsible for the life of an American soldier?

The New York Times, which earlier used the term, "demonizing" to describe opponents of Obama's rescue action, offered a report on the platoon in which Sgt. Bergdahl (pictured above) served:

"The platoon was, an American military official would assert years later, 'raggedy.'

"On their tiny, remote base, in a restive sector of eastern Afghanistan at an increasingly violent time of the war, they were known to wear bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Their crude observation post was inadequately secured, a military review later found. Their first platoon leader, and then their first platoon sergeant, were replaced relatively early in the deployment because of problems.

"But the unit -- Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company in the First Battalion, 501st Regiment -- might well have remained indistinguishable from scores of other Army platoons in Afghanistan had it not been for one salient fact: This was the team from which Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009."

After Bergdahl's disappearance, he spent five years in captivity, held by the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan.

On May 31, he was turned over to the U.S. army in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who had been held since 2002 in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

How the sergeant (promoted from the rank of private during his captivity) was captured by the Taliban is unclear. But, for the moment, that does not matter. The army will determine, through its own legal system, what placed this particular soldier in the control of the Taliban.

At the moment, Sgt. Bergdahl is under medical care, preparing to return home to his parents in Hailey, Idaho. The military justice system will have to determine what comes next for Sgt. Bergdahl.

For now, this nation can rejoice that our last remaining soldier held by enemy forces, is finally free.

As for the 30-day stipulation requiring congressional notification, congressional leaders, including Senator Feinstein, are well aware, as The Nation magazine recently wrote:

"The administration's legal authority to move the men who've been cleared for release is much clearer than it appears in the Bergdahl swap. According to the National Defense Authorization Act passed last year, the secretary of defense needs only to notify Congress of any prisoner transfers thirty days beforehand."

Secretary of State John Kerry defended the prisoner exchange against political and media criticism. Appearing Sunday on the CNN program "State of the Union", Kerry said...

"...that he felt confident the five Taliban detainees freed in a swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl posed little risk to Americans, adding that Qatari officials were not the only ones monitoring them -- and that while the five might be able to return to the battlefield, 'they also have the ability to get killed doing that.'

"Mr. Kerry, in some of his first public remarks on the exchange, struck a decidedly tough tone, dismissing as 'baloney' the suggestion that terrorists would have new incentive to kidnap Americans. ...

"Broadly defending the swap, Mr. Kerry said that it would have been 'offensive and incomprehensible' to leave Sergeant Bergdahl in the hands of people who might torture him or 'cut off his head.'"

Zoe Carpenter, writing in The Nation, put the Bergdahl exchange in the larger context of the future of Gitmo:

"Just weeks ago the president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica Cordano, offered to accept six of the cleared men as refugees. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on May 28 that he would decide to reject or accept the proposal 'fairly soon.' Now that Obama has shown a willingness to push legal boundaries in order to move detainees whose designation as a threat seems at least plausible, the circumstance of men like Diyab, who the government never intends to charge with a crime, is even more indefensible.

"'What's changed is that the president has finally taken the initiative,' said Wells Dixon, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents eight Guantanamo detainees. 'What we're hoping is that he will continue to take bold steps to transfer the remaining men, who are not nearly as complicated or as controversial.'"

"Leave no one behind on the battlefield" is a sacred and long-standing U.S. military commitment. President Obama honored that commitment with his carefully-negotiated prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Presidents are fair game for criticism. When they get it right, we must say so.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:

James Wall served as a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois, from 1999 through 2017. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced Jim's writings over the years, including politics, cinema, media, American culture, and the political struggles in the Middle East. He has made more than 20 trips to that region as a journalist, during which he covered such events as Anwar Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem, and the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. He has interviewed, and written about, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders and private citizens in the region.  

Jim served for two years on active duty in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF (inactive) reserve. He can be reached at: