WASHINGTON (AP) — We never leave troops behind. We don’t negotiate with terrorists.
Those core U.S. commitments, to the soldier, the country and the world, came into conflict when Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban and the government saw only one way to get him back: in essence, make a deal with terrorists.
The debate over Bergdahl rages on multiple fronts, touching on whether the U.S. came out on the short end in a bargain that freed five Taliban captives, whether the soldier who walked away from his post was disloyal to country, whether adversaries will see more gain in capturing Americans, whether the administration was justified in acting without notice to Congress, and more.
What’s clear in the complexities is that the age-old vow to retrieve the captured or the fallen proved more potent than the refusal to make deals with those who don’t fight by the rules.
Each ethos runs deep in the American conscience, yet has been violated through history, notably in the age of terrorism, where traditional standards of warfare, spying and negotiating are run through a hall of mirrors.
Bergdahl and the five Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees traded for his freedom were captives in an undeclared, unconventional and open-ended war that never fit neatly into the Geneva Conventions, U.S. military doctrine or slogans about how to behave.
THE SOLDIER’S CREED
History is replete with extraordinary acts to bring home the lost and fallen.
The U.S. Army’s Warrior Ethos and the Soldier’s Creed both swear, “I will never leave a fallen comrade,” and all the services place a premium on returning the missing, captured and dead. Often this comes at great cost, as in the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia in which 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in the attack on U.S. helicopters and the subsequent rescue attempt.
And a soldier need not be a hero to qualify for a rescue mission or prisoner swap. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, tortured as a captive in the Vietnam War, says Bergdahl was just as entitled as himself, no matter what the soldier was up to when he vanished.
McCain’s quarrel was over the risk that he said the deal poses for others. “We have the obligation to do whatever we can to bring any of our captured service men and women back,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” ”But the question is at what cost, whether it would put the lives of other American men and women who are serving in danger? And in my view, clearly this would.”
To be sure, such risk assessments are not new.
The debate over Bergdahl picked up as world leaders and ordinary citizens commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The legions storming the beaches of Normandy, France, from the sea and dropping behind German lines from the sky faced snap decisions under withering fire about what to do with the wounded or trapped.
Army history tells of wounded paratroopers left behind for the sake of the mission or the survival of their units. Sometimes medics were left behind, too, because they insisted on staying with the injured.
When the Korean War ended in 1953, thousands of missing and dead American soldiers were left behind, as well as POWs, as U.S. forces retreated from North Korea. Not all the missing and dead were returned after the truce and there was strong evidence some POWs were not handed over. Today the Pentagon is still trying to retrieve remains through a process, currently stalled, of paying North Koreans to support field excavations.
A Pentagon agency responsible for helping captured troops says the mission of returning them is “truly and uniquely an indelible part of the American way.” But it’s not the only part.
ANOTHER AMERICAN WAY
Never negotiate with terrorists or hostage-takers? Not quite never.
The Sept. 11 attacks broke open the modern age of asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric dealmaking, diplomacy and national security went hand in hand with that. The old standards and slogans still had meaning but improvisation was required.
Prisoners taken in the fight against terrorism could not be considered prisoners of war in the U.S. government’s estimation because branding them POWs might extend them rights they were not accorded at Guantanamo, never mind the now-discontinued CIA “black sites.”
Meantime, ways were found to talk with unconventional enemies.
As in Bergdahl’s case, where the government of Qatar served as go-between, intermediaries are usually involved to maintain a semblance of separation between two sides that aren’t really supposed to be dealing with each other.
Just months after the 2001 attacks, the U.S. dropped its straightforward ban on government involvement in ransom to hostage-takers, for example. The new policy created more wiggle room for the U.S. to facilitate ransom payments and to shape negotiations, however indirectly, with captors.
To be sure, unsavory and prohibited deal-making has a long history, too.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency is stained by the Iran-contra scandal, in which Iran, designated a state sponsor of terrorism, was to be secretly sold U.S. arms in exchange for the release of hostages, with proceeds steered illegally to Nicaraguan rebels.
The ethos against granting concessions of any kind to scoundrels gave rise to a patriotic rallying cry a century ago in the time of President Teddy Roosevelt and a Moroccan plunderer who became known as the first terrorist of the 1900s.
After Ahmed ibn-Muhammed Raisuli took Greek-American businessman Ion Perdicaris hostage for money and political influence, the U.S. strong-armed Morocco’s sultan with this ultimatum: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
Days later, Perdicaris was free. But it turned out the U.S. had quietly pressed for Raisuli’s ransom demands to be met, which they were.
The U.S. appeared to be wielding Roosevelt’s big stick.
Actually it spoke softly to a terrorist.
Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Robert Burns and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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