More and more Republicans are now finding themselves forced to explain their flip-flops on Bowe Bergdahl (here’s a rundown of some of their latest somersaults). Defenders of the Bergdahl swap are dismissing these GOP reversals as rooted in politics.
But the problem actually goes deeper: It’s rooted in an unfortunate hero/traitor dichotomy that goes beyond politics, and has resulted in views of those who serve in the military that are overly simplistic and indeed have departed from reality.
Some years ago, the country came to a collective realization that the people who fight in a war don’t bear personal responsibility for whether the war was a good idea in the first place. This was an immensely salutary development, one that led to the important acknowledgement of the risks that service members take on. The image of the military improved dramatically, and Americans began looking at those in uniform with new admiration. Service members couldn’t walk through an airport without a dozen people walking up to them to thank them for their service. That’s all good.
But along with it came a devaluation of the idea of heroism. We began to regularly refer to any and all members of the military as “heroes,” without any regard to what they had or hadn’t done in their service. If we use the same term to refer to someone who risked his life to save his fellow soldiers in a valley in Afghanistan as we do for someone who effectively conducted data entry for personnel files at a base in North Carolina, “hero” has lost nearly all its meaning.
Conservatives are up in arms over the fact that Susan Rice said Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction” before he was captured by the Taliban. But how many times have we heard that phrase? It’s become a meaningless throwaway line. These days, if a soldier managed not to frag his commanding officer and drive his Humvee off a cliff, we say he “served with honor and distinction.”
From what we’ve learned so far about Bergdhal (granting that we will certainly learn more), it seems he was an ordinary soldier. He didn’t perform any super-human acts, but he did his job competently. He was something of a quirky guy. He was disillusioned with the Afghan war (like most Americans). He didn’t fit in very well with his comrades.
We also know he had on at least two prior occasions wandered off from his assigned location, once in California and once in Afghanistan. This will be particularly important as the Army figures out just what happened on the night he disappeared, but it’s plausible it may not end up meaning he deserted.
And yet, to hear the administration’s opponents tell it, unless Bergdahl was a true “hero,” a square-jawed, gung-ho Steve Rogers type who had performed acts of uncommon valor and self-sacrifice, then perhaps this swap wasn’t worth it. But that’s a dangerous position to take. There are 1.4 million men and women currently in uniform. Some of them are genuine heroes. Some are villains – in a group that large, there are murderers and rapists, too. But most are just regular people, trying to serve their country and do their jobs as best they can, whether those jobs involve risk to life and limb or not.
We don’t really know yet exactly where Bowe Bergdahl fits on this spectrum. We do know he wasn’t a hero. But that fact should make no difference in evaluating whether the trade we made to get him back was worth it.