Over the weekend, the return of the United States' last prisoner of war in Afghanistan became one of the hottest partisan debates in American politics. Leading Republican after leading Republican blasted President Obama's decision to release five Taliban leaders detained at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, arguing that the deal created incentives for future kidnappings of Americans. Other conservatives say that Bergdahl is a deserter, not a war hero, and that the terms of his release violated a legal requirement to report Guantanamo releases to Congress 30 days in advance.
Much like the Republican line on Benghazi, it's a message that'll resonate among a conservative base that already sees Obama as someone who's dangerously soft on terrorism. But that's probably the limit of the argument's appeal, for reasons best explained by one of Bergdahl's most important critics: a former battalion-mate who helped conduct the search for the POW after his sudden disappearance.
Nathan Bradley Bethea is a writer and former soldier who penned a scathing piece in The Daily Beast arguing that Bergdahl voluntarily walked away from his post rather than, as the official story suggests, disappearing while on patrol. "The truth," Bethea wrote, is that "Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down." Bethea says there was no patrol the night of Bergdahl's disappearance and that both members of his platoon and internal documents say he simply walked away after being relieved from guard duty.
Yet Bethea fully supports Bergdahl's release, and abhors the political controversy that's come to surround it. Here's his reasoning, as laid out in a series of tweets:
So, a few things that I would like to clarify. I know that some people want to use my piece to criticize the POTUS decision on Bergdahl...— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
1. It would be politically impossible for POTUS to leave Bergdahl in Afghanistan. You cannot leave someone behind like that.— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
2. I wrote my piece because the ambiguous retelling of what happened made our unit look like garbage. The truth is: Bergdahl acted alone.— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
3. For the soldiers of 4-25, this is probably the biggest thing that happened downrange, and they have been made to shut up about it.— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
4. What I want is for people to discuss what happened on June 30, 2009. My soldiers' lives were changed forever, and they deserve to talk.— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
5. I have absolutely no desire to criticize bringing him back. I'm glad he's back. POW/MIA are not to be forgotten. Now tell the truth.— Nathan Bradley (@inthesedeserts) June 2, 2014
Bethea's distinction between Bergdahl's disappearance and his release is significant. It's one thing to think, as some veterans appear to, that Bergdahl should be now be tried by an American court for desertion (that appears unlikely, according to administration statements). It's a different thing entirely to believe an American soldier should remain in the Taliban's clutches indefinitely.
The problem with the emerging Republican position is that it implicitly forces the GOP to defend the latter; that Bergdahl should have been left. No amount of speculation about hypothetical future kidnappings or quibbling over legal niceties are likely, in political terms, to overcome the emotionally powerful support for captured veterans' freedom. And after the initial wave of press coverage subsides, Republican leaders will probably get that. Bergdahl's release will not remain a partisan flashpoint for very long.