Typically, the return of an American soldier from enemy captivity doesn't become a bitter partisan issue.
But the tale of Bowe Bergdahl, former Hailey, Idaho, resident, is not a typical one. From the moment the terms of his release came out – five Taliban prisoners for one American soldier – the tone shifted dramatically. Complaints that Congress hadn’t been involved in the decision, criticism from fellow soldiers, and the recent decision by the Army to charge him with desertion and misbehavior in front of the enemy has created a serious divide.
Liberals are arguing that America’s commitment to its troops should be absolute, that it doesn’t matter how he fell into the hands of the enemy, we have a duty to bring them home. They point to the agony of his grieving family. And they show his brutal, stream-of-consciousness letter Bergdahl wrote detailing his captivity. He was kept in a cage, shackled, and in the dark, his hands oozing pus, and starved.
“During the five years, I unsuccessfully tried to escape approximately 12 times,” Bergdahl writes. To liberals, he’s already suffered enough.
But conservatives are furious. They feel Bergdahl betrayed his unit by deserting it, and blame him for the deaths of six of his fellow soldiers. Despite comments by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (a former Marine) and a military defense attorney suggesting that his captivity could count as “time served,” some conservatives pilloried even raising the question as biased idiocy.
You could dismiss it as simply that one side hates anything President Barack Obama does, and one side will defend anything he does, but it goes a lot deeper than that, getting at deeply held beliefs about justice, duty, honor, foreign policy, military service, compromise and forgiveness.
Which is where Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador comes in. Labrador’s a long, long way from a moderate squish. He hasn’t been afraid to dish out criticism at the president, or call for Obama's Attorney General to resign. He once tried to lead a coup against Speaker of the House John Boehner. He ran unsuccessfully for Majority Leader. During the government shutdown, he was one of those urging a hard line in negotiations. Anyone hoping that Labrador would be a key bridge between parties in wholesale immigration reform, has had their hopes thoroughly dashed by now.
But with, Bergdahl, it’s different. Bergdahl’s family isn’t in Labrador’s district – they’re in Mike Simpson’s, but in February of 2012, Bergdahl’s family visited him in Washington D.C.
I don't think we should be judging Bowe by some of the actions of his father, by some of the comments of his father. Because his father was just trying to get his son home. And as you know, any father would do whatever they can to get their son home in a situation like this.
He said there was a time for questions, but later.
And I think those questions are going to need to be answered, but now is not the time for those questions. I think now is the time for us all to share in the joy of the family, of the city of Hailey and the state. I think we need to leave those questions aside for a couple of weeks.
Labrador has still been critical of the how the Obama administration failure to give Congress 30 days notice about the exchange, saying in a statement last September:
"As a father I continue to rejoice with the Bergdahl family at the return of their son. But as a member of Congress, I cannot sit idly by when the president ignores the law."
Yet he’s also criticized those in his own party for lack of historical context, in his KBOI interview.
"I'm a little bit disturbed by some of the Republicans out there who keep saying this has never happened before… That is not entirely true. If you look historically, at the end of any conflict, you have a swap of prisoners, and that happens. Usually our side will release people that are less than desirable in order to get some of our people back in these swaps. So I would suggest that anybody who's being hyper-critical about this, they should look at the history. This has happened before."
The news that Bergdahl was being charged with desertion and misbehavior in front of the enemy, had many conservatives trumpeting I-told-you-so, but Labrador has been quieter. Spokesman Dan Popkey had simply this to say: “Congressman Labrador has confidence in the military courts. We need to let the military justice system run its course."