One day, I predict, the fate of Bowe Bergdahl will prove to be the least important aspect of the Bowe Bergdahl story. For now, though, even more than President Obama, Bergdahl is the locus of rage as Americans erupt in pent-up frustration over the disaster that is Afghanistan.
It is probably the poisonous reek of government lies breaking open that has ignited this passion – so many lies and so much subterfuge that a clear story has yet to take shape. But this collective outrage over Afghanistan – a first in the history of our long war there – shouldn’t all be spent on Bergdahl, or even on Obama. But I will save that story for another day.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the nation’s wrath is as understandable as it is real. Bergdahl wasn’t captured as the government vaguely led us to believe, even going so far as to prevent some of Bergdahl’s platoon-mates from talking about what happened by having them sign nondisclosure agreements. We now know that as many as 14 American soldiers were killed trying to rescue Bergdahl. Their bereaved families must grieve anew over breaking news about exactly why their sons died. Their pain becomes more fuel for our outrage.
The president has invoked lofty ideals to explain his decision to release five high-risk Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl. “The United States,” Obama said, “has always had a pretty sacred rule and that is: We don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind, and that dates back to the earliest days. Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.” Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a top Afghanistan commander, later echoed the president’s remarks: “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.”
But this, too, is a lie. Most Americans may not realize it, but the United States has routinely left huge numbers of our POW/MIAs behind.
Shortly before the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner story broke, our country lost a great patriot, Joseph D. Douglass Jr., someone I am proud to say was a friend and mentor. A widely renowned expert in U.S.-Soviet relations, Douglass passed away on May 23 at age 78. It was his searing 2002 book “Betrayed” that focused my attention on the most ghastly betrayal of all: the betrayal by the U.S. government of literally thousands of American POWs and MIAs who were left behind in Communist prisons after every war America fought in the 20th century, from World War I (against the new Bolshevik regime) to Vietnam.
In assessing the available research, including a landmark 1990 report by the Republican minority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Douglass concluded that as many as 2,000 Americans were left behind after the Vietnam War, 5,000 to 8,000 after the Korean War, 1,000 throughout the Cold War, and, staggeringly, between 15,000 and 20,000 after World War II. (I discuss this gruesome subject in my book “American Betrayal.”)
These giant numbers are not only shocking, they are numbing to the point of sounding fantastic to those among us who have only heard politicians such as Sen. John McCain or Secretary of State John Kerry on the subject, or followed mainstream media coverage thereof. Such coverage is one of consistent denial of the existence of these men, plus ridicule for their advocates. A breakthrough of sorts came in 2005 when Norman Kass, the American chief of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, told CNN that he would be “comfortable” acknowledging that “hundreds” of American servicemen in the 20th century had actually ended up in the Soviet-era slave-labor camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. I can hardly think of a more sickening admission.
No national reckoning, no apologies to the much-maligned POW/MIA community, however, followed. Nor did then-President George W. Bush run the black banner of the POW/MIA up the White House flagpole in remembrance.
This back story of silence and denial offers a sharp contrast to the Bowe Bergdahl spectacle. It also renders declarations about the U.S. government leaving no man behind demonstrably false.
That should be enough to keep the outrage boiling.