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Sgt. Bergdahl

June 11, 2014

The release of Sgt. Bergdahl after 5 years of detention by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five high ranking members of the Taliban from Guantanamo created a major nationwide controversy.

Critics of the exchange argued that more kidnappings would follow because we, the United States had given into the enemy and that we therefore had set a price on the heads of future American captives.

The argument has some merit.

Many also questioned the exchange because of the fact that Sgt. Bergdahl had deserted before being captured by the Taliban. (One should note that desertion does not mean joining the enemy, which he did not.) Does the fact that he deserted somehow negate our obligation to do our best to rescue him? Do we know what really happened in his mind and soul? Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. in her book Trauma and Recovery, writes: “In WWII, it was recognized that any man could break down under fire and that psychiatric casualties could be predicted in direct proportion to the severity of combat exposure. There is no such thing as “getting used to combat.” And she adds:  ”Thus, psychiatric casualties are inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”

Those that support the exchange believe that saving the life of one U.S. soldier is more important than the potential risk of future kidnappings. Furthermore, it is essential for the morale of soldiers to know that the army will do whatever it takes to rescue them should they be kidnapped.  David Brooks in his June 5th New York Time’s editorial writes: “the loss of national fraternity that would result if we start abandoning Americans in the field would be a great and more lasting harm” than the five Guantanamo prisoners could ever cause.

The very difficult moral question is whether we should negotiate with or pay ransom to kidnappers? We probably all agree that in principle that we should not pay ransom, in order not to encourage future kidnappings. However when we come to a specific individual who has a name, a face and a family, principles and policies carry little weight in the balance between a life to be saved and the risk  of future kidnappings.

I think that we all, as individuals or as a community have a moral obligation to rescue or deliver our fellow/men/women. The means used for the rescue will depend on the circumstances and the available options, such as using force, paying a ransom or proceeding to a prisoner exchange.

Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish thinker once said that there was no religious duty greater than the redeeming of captives and he quotes, to support his statement, Leviticus 19:18 which says:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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