Soon we shall get to the bottom of the swap of five Taliban kingpins from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for one Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
In time we will learn whether Sgt. Bergdahl really served with “honor and distinction” and was “captured on the battlefield,” as National Security Adviser Susan Rice has stated. Or whether, as fellow soldiers of his platoon insist, he was a deserter who left his comrades to seek out the Taliban.
We will soon discover whether Sgt. Bergdahl’s serious health problems or imminent danger prompted President Obama to make the sudden swap. Or whether, as administration skeptics insist, the deal was a rushed political gambit to divert attention from the Veterans Affairs scandal — and a way to whittle down the Guantanamo population and erode laws demanding congressional approval before such detainees are released.
Amid the swap conundrum, the president has defended the trade by referencing history and the American experience in past wars. Here, too, what the president states is not always accurate.
Mr. Obama insisted , “We have a rule, a principle, that when somebody wears our country’s uniform and they’re in a war theater, and they’re captured … we’re going to do everything we can to bring ‘em home. … And regardless of whatever circumstances there are, it is our obligation to bring them home.”
Yet the United States has not routinely sought to bring captives home, “regardless of whatever circumstances there are.” During the Korean War, and for decades afterwards while on patrol in Korea, some American soldiers simply walked across the demilitarized zone and turned themselves over to the North Koreans.
Both in war and peace, the United States often did little to bring them back, even when the deserters had second thoughts and wanted to return. Charles Robert Jenkins stayed in North Korea for nearly 40 years after deserting in 1965. Japan sought to pressure the U.S. government to pardon him and helped obtain his release. On his return, Jenkins pled guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy and was given a dishonorable discharge.
Robert Garwood left his post in Vietnam under disputed circumstances in 1965. He was not included in prisoner swaps at the end of the Vietnam War. The U.S. government made few subsequent efforts to bring him home from North Vietnam. When Garwood finally got back more than 14 years after he was detained, he was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge.
Mr. Obama also declared that in “the transition process of ending a war is going to involve, on occasion, releasing folks who we may not trust, but we can’t convict.”
That is also mostly untrue. The United States, in most of its foreign wars, more often waited until the conclusion — not during a “transition process” — before exchanging prisoners. How does the president know beforehand that “we can’t convict” through military tribunals Guantanamo terrorists like those he released, as we have with others in the past?
We are also not “ending a war,” but only U.S. participation in it. Most likely, after our departure in 2016, the enemy, in similar fashion to the North Vietnamese in 1975, will storm Kabul, declare victory and vitiate the long American sacrifice intended to offer the Afghans some alternative to the Taliban.
The Bergdahl affair is a chapter in a much larger story. Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008 on the premise that George W. Bush had unwisely diverted resources to the bad war in Iraq from the good one in Afghanistan. Accordingly, Mr. Obama promised to step up and defeat the Taliban. Six years later, and with the U.S. military suffering more casualties under this administration than were lost during the Bush administration, Mr. Obama now feels that America has had enough.
The president wants to quit the war, whether Afghanistan is subsequently lost to the Taliban or not. He wishes to close Guantanamo, as he promised in 2008, regardless of a law that demands congressional approval to release detainees, and despite the dangers incurred by the release of terrorists. Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl home is part of sporadic negotiations with the Taliban about easing Americans out of the war, and also useful for closing down Guantanamo.
Mr. Obama is wagering that the public does not care all that much whether Sgt. Bergdahl is a deserter or whether the administration has negotiated with terrorists such as the Haqqani network or the Taliban. Or whether the released Taliban militants will soon return to fight in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama is also betting that Americans are sick of Afghanistan, and don’t really care how American soldiers leave or what they leave behind, as long as they all leave.
We saw that in Iraq in 2011, and we are seeing it again as a backdrop to the Bergdahl swap.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.