Bowe Bergdahl’s name has been emblazoned across cable news chyrons all week, but on Tuesday Rachel Maddow was talking about a different American POW: Jessica Lynch.
Maddow opened her show with a lengthy recollection of the 2003 rescue of Lynch, who was captured after her vehicle was ambushed on the third day of the Iraq war. Lynch was initially portrayed by the Washington Post as a hero, a “little girl Rambo” as she later described it, who went down guns blazing and riddled with bullets. The story proved a myth; as Lynch quickly clarified, her gun had jammed and she wasn’t able to shoot anyone.
For Maddow, freeing Lynch was analogous to freeing Bergdahl because both had complicated backstories. Only in Bergdahl’s case there are these damned right-wingers we must contend with. She played a montage of conservatives objecting to the prisoner swap that freed Bergdahl. After a phony pregnant pause, she concluded, “On the American right, in Republican politics and in conservative media, there apparently is nothing to celebrate in an American prisoner of war coming home after five years.”
To compare Jessica Lynch, who served her country honorably and told the truth about it afterwards, with Bowe Bergdahl, a man accused by his fellow soldiers of desertion, is disgraceful. But then again, you wouldn’t know that from watching Maddow, who never bothered to mention that it was veterans who attacked Bergdahl first, not conservatives.
Maddow’s segment is characteristic of the way liberal news outlets have covered Bowe Bergdahl. Rather than actually address the right’s objections, they’ve instead spent the past week torching and engulfing whole fields of straw men. You don’t support Bergdahl’s release? What, do you hate POWs or something? As Maddow herself actually said the next night, “They really are, as conservative politicians, expected now to be against an American POW and against the deal that brought him home.”
Let’s just be thankful Keith Olbermann isn’t on MSNBC anymore. “Haveth thou no decency, sirs?! Out, treasonous right-wing spots! Out I say!”
I’ll concede that some of the rhetoric about Bergdahl has been overheated. But by and large, the questions being asked by conservatives aren’t about Bergdahl’s release per se, but whether its cost of folding to enemy demands and releasing five Taliban leaders was worth it. The military isn’t in the habit of leaving men behind, but the military also isn’t in the habit of retrieving those men through deeply lopsided—and potentially dangerous—prisoner swaps.
America has a long history of military desertion. Over 50,000 soldiers deserted during World War II, often from the front lines. About 21,000 of them were court-martialed and sentenced, though many were later given clemency. Only forty-nine deserters were sentenced to death, and only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed.
Desertion is still common in modern warfare, but most deserters leave before or after their deployments. Kimberly Rivera, who was sentenced to ten months in prison last year, fled to Canada while on leave after serving a tour of duty in Iraq. Bergdahl, who seems to have just picked up and walked away in the middle of a war zone, is a rare case.
That lack of precedence means there’s necessarily going to be debate over his release. Should President Obama have traded five grizzled Taliban leaders for one soldier who could face a court martial? Should he have handed the Taliban a propaganda victory like the one they achieved when video of the transfer was released? What happens if, five years from now, one of the ex-Gitmo prisoners is involved in an attack on American interests? Asking those questions hardly makes you deranged.
Then there’s the illegality of it all. President Obama is required by law to notify Congress thirty days before freeing Guantanamo Bay prisoners, which he didn’t do. The left has either refused to mention this, as Maddow did, or mentioned it only in passing. (My favorite example is hack extraordinaire Dana Milbank, who yesterday noted that the president “disobeyed the law.” Not “broke the law” or “violated the law,” but “disobeyed,” as though the U.S. Code is equivalent to a motherly command to eat your peas.)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that the president’s expansive Article II powers allow him to ignore the law when it comes to prisoner swaps. Had Donald Rumsfeld made such a claim, perhaps buttressed by an obsequious John Yoo OLC memo, the left would have been thrown a tantrum. But when it’s the Obama administration, the brimstone of anti-unitary executive liberals suddenly dissipates.
And ultimately that’s the problem. Conservatives are often accused of losing their minds over President Obama, and sometimes that’s true. But it’s also true that liberals have become so contemptuous of the right, so convinced of its feral venality, that they’ve lost any sense of how to respond rationally to political controversies.
There are questions over Bowe Bergdahl, the IRS scandal, and, yes, even Benghazi that merit answers. Conservatives care about getting those answers. Liberals don’t, often for the sole reason that conservatives do.
CORRECTION: This piece initially identified the Pentagon as the source of myths about Jessica Lynch, which were reported in the Washington Post. It has since been brought to our attention that the Post reporter denied that the military had been behind the Lynch mythmaking. We have thus deleted the reference to the Pentagon and regret the error.