This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 2014.
By Michael Allen
"The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule," President Barack Obama said in response to those who criticized his decision to exchange five Guantanamo detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. "We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind. … Period." Anyone familiar with the battle of Mogadishu depicted in the film "Black Hawk Down," or who can recall Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch's rescue in the Iraq War knows the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. armed forces will go to uphold this creed.
Yet while this commitment has long enjoyed widespread acclaim among Americans, for some, including Sen. John McCain, Obama's decision goes too far. "We should have certainly made efforts to bring Bergdahl home," McCain said, "but this price is higher than any in history." Though there are unanswered questions and legitimate concerns surrounding the president's actions, McCain's criticism is historically inaccurate. Not only does the United States have a long record of giving more in exchange for its prisoners, it did so in the war in which McCain fought.
Obama stands on firm historical footing when he claims, "this is what happens at the ends of wars." Indeed, prisoner exchanges have gone hand-in-hand with negotiating an end to wars, and more often than not marked the passage from war to peace.
In the Korean War, for instance, the question of whether to forcibly repatriate prisoners who preferred not to return to their former commands prolonged that conflict long past the point of the military stalemate reached in 1951. The breakthrough came in the form of a negotiated exchange of 684 sick and wounded United Nations forces for 6,200 sick and wounded communist forces in April 1953. That paved the way for a general armistice later that summer, bringing the release of 12,773 UN prisoners in return for more than 75,000 Chinese and North Korean captives.
This history not only confirms Obama's point that prisoner exchanges have historically accompanied the end of hostilities, it suggests that his desire to use a prisoner transfer to pave the way for a broader peace agreement with the Taliban was neither as treacherous nor foolhardy as critics allege. President Dwight Eisenhower, during the Korean War, and President Richard Nixon, during the Vietnam War, used prisoner exchanges to win face-saving exits from wars they determined the U.S. could not win. So eager was Nixon to extricate U.S. forces from Vietnam without leaving American POWs behind, he promised North Vietnam billions of dollars in postwar reconstruction aid to secure the release of men he had no military means of freeing. While those funds were never paid and such deals may not make us proud, they remind us that there's nothing new or particularly damning about Obama's decision to trade the Taliban captives for an American POW. Since the president announced his intent to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan to below 10,000 by the end of 2014, this was, as one official professed, his "last chance" to leave no soldier behind. It is not surprising that Obama seized it. Indeed, it would have been surprising had he not done so given the fierce criticism presidents faced after the Vietnam War for having failed to do everything in their power on behalf of Americans still missing from that conflict.
Nor did Obama pay a particularly high price for Sgt. Bergdahl's return. The ratio of communist to UN forces exchanged at the end of the Korean War was six to one. And when the Vietnam War ended, 591 American POWs returned to the U.S. and some 6,000 anti-communist South Vietnamese captives were released compared with some 36,000 communist captives, a ratio of more than five to one, in addition to the billions President Nixon pledged in reconstruction aid.
In earlier wars, enemy combatants were understood to have legal rights under the laws of war and habeas corpus. In the war on terror, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, with the full complicity of their congressional critics, fashioned a legal black hole that presupposes indefinite detention without trial for captured foes. In the process they have not only broken with international law and American legal traditions, they have also broken with a long practice of making peace by exchanging prisoners of war.
The costs of the Bergdahl exchange come not in the ratio of prisoners exchanged nor in the form of compromised national security or lost national prestige, as Obama's critics would have it, but rather in the form of continued human rights violations, abridged civil rights, tarnished international standing, and our ever more bitter domestic politics.
- Michael Allen is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University.