Friday, May 27 , 2016, 5:54 pm | Fair 67º

Susan Estrich: The Bowe Bergdahl Story, the Hero and the Bad Guys

By Susan Estrich |

On May 31, Bowe Bergdahl was a hero, and the five members of the Taliban being freed in exchange for him were the worst of the worst.

By the end of the week, it seemed that neither is actually true. The parade in Bergdahl’s Idaho hometown was canceled. Four of the five aren’t nice guys, but they aren’t war criminals, either.

As for Bergdahl, I don’t pretend to know whether he deserted his unit. That is a question that can only be answered in a properly and fairly conducted court-martial.

But the account that broke my heart was the interview with the widow who had only just learned that it was while he was out looking for Bergdahl that her husband was killed. She was pregnant with their second child at the time. I don’t know how you explain that to your kids, especially when they are old enough to understand.

And of course, what made it so much worse is that we really wanted a happy ending to this story. I was watching the coverage that Saturday in the green room at Fox, and Tammy Bruce reminded me of all the questions that had been raised in the past about Bergdahl’s disappearance. Jake Tapper had already tweeted about it. It was there. And if you listened to the coverage clearly or read the whole story, it was there: the continued uncertainty as to how it was that Bergdahl was seized. But who listened so closely? The Army promoted him twice. They must know. Besides, I wanted to be happy for Jani and Bob Bergdahl, his parents.

That Saturday belonged to Bowe’s parents. They lived through every parent’s nightmare, and then after years of pain and grief, they got the call. Their son was coming home. I defy you to find a mother who did not relate to Jani Bergdahl, who did not want to share her joy.

To a mother, it’s worth five of the worst of the worst or, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., put it, “the hardest and toughest of all.”

Well, maybe not so hard and tough. Three of the five, it is now being reported, were political officials during the period that the Taliban ruled and were thought to be among the moderates in the Taliban government; one of them was a student working for a relative, who offered to help the United States after we came in, and we arrested him instead. Another was a midlevel police official.

One, the former army chief of staff, looks to be among the worst and is accused of war crimes. But in terms of his likely role in the Taliban today, even he is more than a decade out of date, and as some of the experts have not so charitably put it, all of these guys are old, at least in terrorist terms.

So should the Obama administration have done the swap?

Probably. But like so much of our politics today, the answer isn’t very satisfying.

It’s important to send the message to our soldiers that we leave no one behind. Bergdahl deserves his day in court, at least, and until proved guilty, he is an American soldier whom we are all bound to support.

But my heart still goes out to the widow who is wondering exactly why her husband was out searching for this guy.

On the bad guys, the hardest question, as to four of the five, is not whether we are endangered by their release, but whether this is whom we have been keeping Guantanamo open to detain. Why?

As to the fifth, the really bad guy, my assumption, which the reports seem to confirm, is that he was the price of the deal. You want to get your soldiers home? You give up bad guys. Ask Israel. War is an ugly business. Not much to be happy about. The left and right can scream at each other, but neither side has great answers. It is what it is.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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