Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

By Carl M. Cannon - June 8, 2014

In a riveting scene in “Saving Private Ryan,” a movie that begins and ends at Normandy—where President Obama spoke Friday—Gen. George C. Marshall (played by Harve Presnell) reads aloud a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a grieving mother. Marshall is explaining to his own officers why they must rescue an infantryman named James Ryan, even at the risk of losing more men.

The young soldier, it seems, lost two brothers on D-Day. A third was killed in the Pacific that week. Their mother will receive all three telegrams in the same day. “Saving Private Ryan” is loosely based on the Niland brothers of Tonawanda, N.Y. Out of this crucible, and another World War II tragedy—the loss of five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, aboard a U.S. Navy cruiser—the Pentagon adopted the “sole survivor” policy.

In all of America’s previous wars, brothers often fought side by side. Thus, many died together. The letter Gen. Marshall reads in “Saving Private Ryan” is real. It was addressed to Lydia Bixby, a Boston widow, in 1864 after the president was told by Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew that Mrs. Bixby had lost five boys in the Civil War. Apparently drafted by his secretary John Hay, Lincoln begins by mentioning her five sons who “died gloriously on the field of battle.”

“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” the letter says. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” Lincoln continues, “and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

This sense of “anguish and bereavement” was also felt by Lincoln. This must be true of all presidents. It has to be the hardest part of the job, thinking of the troops you put in harm’s way. That’s what Obama has been trying to tell us about the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: that anyone in his position would be moved by the anguish of the soldier’s parents.

“I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction,” Obama explained during a press conference Thursday. “You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again. And as commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, I am responsible. … This is somebody's child.”

The somebodies in this case turned out to be Robert and Jani Bergdahl, practicing Presbyterians who decamped from California 30 years ago for small-town Idaho where they home-schooled their two children and where Bob drove a UPS delivery truck. He was working June 1, 2009, when he received radio instruction to return to headquarters. His son was missing in Afghanistan.

From that moment forward, Bowe Bergdahl’s father dedicated himself to getting his son back. In the 2008 thriller “Taken,” this takes ex-CIA man Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) only a couple of days—and numerous dead bad guys. In real life, Bob Bergdahl grew his beard long, immersed himself in Afghanistan’s history, and learned Pashto and Urdu. He spoke at Republican Party fundraisers in Idaho, lobbied Democrats in Washington, and enlisted his adopted hometown in the cause.

The upshot, when Bowe was traded by the U.S. government for five Guantanamo detainees with bad reputations, was a terribly awkward Rose Garden appearance with the parents and the president. The beard made Bob Bergdahl look like a cross between “Duck Dynasty” and Mullah Omar. The optics were hardly improved when the soldier’s father muttered an Islamic blessing in Pashto.

Inevitably, this episode generated spirited debate. Seven decades after President Roosevelt allowed a hapless World War II deserter named Eddie Slovik to be executed, President Obama was literally hugging the parents of a soldier who wandered away from his post. These discussions weren’t strictly partisan: On MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough engaged in a shouting match with White House correspondent Chuck Todd over Bob Bergdahl’s parenting skills.

Others weighed in, too, including the parents of soldiers who died on patrol in Afghanistan, reportedly while looking for Bowe. The president will feel their pain, too. But that is all he should do.

As hard as it must be, the fathers of the killed and the missing should not be dictating national policy—as the recent mass killing in Santa Barbara reminds us. Richard Martinez, the father of a student shot by a murderous gunman there, has noisily proclaimed his determination to prevent similar tragedies. But his proscription—he has focused on the National Rifle Association—seems misplaced. His son’s killer was an unstable narcissist bent on murder and mayhem, and he would have done so without a gun. He did do it without a gun: Three of his six victims were fatally stabbed. Moreover, California has exactly the kind of gun controls designed to alert law enforcement, but the police didn’t bother to check their own database—even after being alerted to the danger.

But how can one criticize Mr. Martinez or Mr. Bergdahl? Fathers must try to protect their children. It’s up to our elected leaders to be compassionate, while also being clear-eyed. Obama could have asked Lincoln about this. It turns out that Mrs. Bixby’s loss had been exaggerated.

Two of her sons, Charles and Oliver, were killed on the battlefields of Virginia. A third, Henry, was listed as killed at Gettysburg, but actually survived and was honorably discharged. A fourth, who had lied about his age to enlist, had a change of heart and left voluntarily. A fifth Bixby, George, was captured at Petersburg, but may have deserted to the enemy. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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