The Two Kinds of Bowe Bergdahl Backlash

The release of an American prisoner of war from Taliban custody raises questions about how he was captured and the legality of the exchange that freed him.
A billboard near Spokane, Washington, called for Bowe Bergdahl's release in February. (Jeff T. Green/Reuters)

No sooner had the yellow ribbons started to come down from the trees than the backlash started up. Not everyone is delighted about the Obama administration's deal to free American POW Bowe Bergdahl by exchanging him for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

It's pretty easy to view this cynically, as a sign that in these times, everything is political and the country can't come together over anything. And to a certain extent that's true: If dueling, pro-forma charges of politicization from official Democratic and Republican spokesmen don't instill pessimism, what will? But while there are plenty of controversies that seem far from producing any meaningful revelations, despite extensive inquiry—Benghazi comes to mind—there are important constitutional and policy issues at stake in this case.

First, there's some personal backlash against Bergdahl, involving the circumstances of his capture. In a searing piece on The Daily Beast, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a former infantry officer in Afghanistan, lays out the anger many servicemembers feel toward Bergdahl. They say he wasn't captured; he walked away from his post, and Americans died trying to rescue him:

The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey later wrote that "[w]hether Bergdahl…just walked away from his base or was lagging behind on a patrol at the time of his capture remains an open and fiercely debated question.” Not to me and the members of my unit. Make no mistake: Bergdahl did not "lag behind on a patrol,” as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.

What can one say to this? It's hard not to celebrate Bergdahl's return, but it's equally hard to dismiss the anger that these veterans feel. Soldiers depend on unity and cohesion, and they displayed that in searching for their missing comrade. If that was in reaction to his desertion, that was a betrayal of the same principles that freed him. But former Army officer Andrew Exum (who praised Bethea's story), laid out a case against this sort of backlash:

Don't count on many politicians taking up this strain. No one wants to be seen as opposing bringing an American soldier home, deserter or no, especially after an anxious, five-year-long vigil.

But some Republicans have criticized the White House for how it executed the swap. There's lingering discomfort stateside about negotiating with the Taliban, though it's been happening for years now. Even absent that unease, the exchange released five pretty nasty guys from Guantanamo Bay. They'll likely be a thorn in the side of the Afghan government at home and could cause the U.S. problems too. And the deal was negotiated without informing Congress, breaking a 2013 law that says an administration must give at least 30 days notice before transferring anyone from Gitmo.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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