I am an American soldier.
This simple first sentence of the Army’s Soldier’s Creed packs a wallop. Being an American soldier means being a warrior, a fighter, a patriot, a hero.
And yet the history of the American soldier is littered with stories that meander between heroism and the sorts of behavior that earn soldiers headlines for the wrong reasons. My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Each is a nuanced narrative. More often than not, the fog of war blurs the line between truth and fiction.
Such is the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner of war freed by President Barack Obama’s decision last week to trade for him the lives of five Taliban enemy combatants held in a Guantanamo Bay prison that stains a nation’s conscience.
Sgt. Bergdahl is no hero. He might be a deserter. He might be, like so many other veterans clogging VA hospitals, a man whose mental capacity to deal with America’s longest war wasn’t up to the task.
He is an American soldier whose story is viewed in the spaces between the sixth and seventh lines of that aforementioned creed.
I will never quit.
Sgt. Bergdahl might be a quitter. For those on the right side of the political spectrum, those who wanted the president to do anything in his power to bring the American soldier home right up to the time when he did, it’s an accepted article of faith. Sgt. Bergdahl walked away from his base and into the hands of the waiting Taliban. His father’s long beard, grown in solidarity with his son the prisoner of war, is being pointed to as some sort of evidence of nefarious intent. Apparently, long beards on gay-bashing reality TV stars are OK. Dads growing them as a modern-day version of the yellow ribbon? Not so much.
In this way, Sgt. Bergdahl is a metaphor for how broken the American political system has become. Until he was traded for Taliban prisoners, Sgt. Bergdahl was a cause célèbre for the right, with men like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the country’s most famous former POW, using him as an example of President Barack Obama’s weakness. They demanded that anything be done to bring him home. They knew then of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his departure from his base. Those details didn’t fit their chosen narrative. They ignored them.
When Obama did what they demanded, they changed the rules. He gave up too much, they said. He negotiated with terrorists. The Fox News and right-wing radio crowd attacked Sgt. Bergdahl’s character so much that his hometown in Idaho canceled a welcome home ceremony. The ghosts of Vietnam live.
More than simple hypocrisy, those who would rather that Sgt. Bergdahl had died in enemy hands want to rewrite the sixth line of the Solider’s Creed:
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
So inherent to the military ethos is that most patriotic of concepts that today, more than 70 years after D-Day, the Department of Defense has a unit dedicated to scouring European and Asian countrysides for remains of the 74,000 American soldiers whose bodies have never been found since the end of World War II.
In the madness that followed the bloody landing at Normandy, thousands of U.S. servicemen became separated from their units. Some, disoriented, ended up in villages, where they found comfort, instead of, say, Taliban captors. Others died. Some became prisoners. This is the reality of war. Everybody who survived the invasion of Europe is a hero. History obscures the messy details.
Time will tell whether Obama’s prisoner exchange worked out well for the good guys. The story could take so many turns at this point. Sgt. Bergdahl might face a court-martial, but better that a soldier face American justice than the Taliban version. Those former inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay could come back to haunt us, or find themselves targeted by a drone.
This ugly and divisive period in American political history will pass, but one day there will be another war and a soldier will go missing. Another commander-in-chief will face the lonely decision of whether to allow an American soldier to live or die, to bring him home or leave him behind.
There can be no litmus test on that decision. The creed, both written and unwritten, doesn’t say to bring only certain soldiers home. It doesn’t offer a multiple-choice quiz on political leanings, sexuality, mental capacity or character development.
It is the one promise that every American parent of an American soldier holds dear in their heart, whether their sons or daughters believe in the mission or send emails or make diary entries questioning it, as Sgt. Bergdahl did, or Cpl. Tillman before him.
When the U.S. government sought to hide the details of Cpl. Tillman’s tragic death by friendly fire, the brother of the former NFL player appeared before Congress, seeking the truth:
“Pat and these other soldiers volunteered to put their lives on the line for this country,” Kevin Tillman said, according to the account in “Where Men Win Glory,” the biography of Cpl. Tillman written by Jon Krakauer. “Anything less than the truth is a betrayal of those values that all soldiers who have fought for this nation have sought to uphold.”
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
There will come a time when Congress should seek the truth about everything that happened to Sgt. Bergdahl before and after his captors handed him back over to U.S. special forces. But the real truth, not the trumped-up version peddled by men like former Rep. Allen West, the Florida Republican already calling for Obama’s impeachment, or the made-for-television Benghazi hearings run by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., which became a sideshow that trampled on the memories of the dead.
In the Benghazi-to-Bergdahl spectrum, those Republicans willing to use almost any situation as a political weapon against Obama have come full circle. First they blamed the president for not doing enough to save American lives. Now he has done too much.
This imperfect political system manufactures breathtaking hypocrisy at times. But it’s still the best, most free system in the world.
I am an American soldier.
From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, from Benghazi to Baghdad, that’s why we fight, even when the cause lacks the moral clarity of taking a beach so the evils of Nazism can be stopped.
The price we pay for leaving no soldier behind is a high one indeed. It’s a ransom paid in blood for a treasure worth defending.