John Walker Lindh, print by Stephen A. Alcorn

John Walker Lindh, print by Stephen A. Alcorn Religion in the News

In the commotion over the swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantanamo prisoners, right-wingers were gobsmacked by Obamaphobe Charles Krauthammer’s support of the president’s decision. They were only somewhat less surprised by David Brooks’ support. Has the messiah come?

Hardly. But both Krauthammer and Brooks are Jews well aware of Israel’s readiness to exchange over a thousand incarcerated Palestinians — “terrorists,” as they are called — for a single Israeli prisoner of war. In the Jewish State, it’s a given that you negotiate with anyone, and risk putting lots of hostile guys back on street, to get back one of your own. Good, bad, or indifferent, an Israeli soldier is one of ours.

The Israeli position is completely in line with the U.S. military’s own commitment not to leave any personnel behind — which is why no one in the military can be found to criticize the deal. So perhaps the real question is why other Americans are prepared to do so.

For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and herself (let it be noted) Jewish, it appears to be the latest example of the White House’s failure to keep her in the loop. Then there’s that pesky if conceivably unconstitutional law requiring the president to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the release of any prisoner from Gitmo. And is anyone surprised that GOP politicians were in favor of getting Bergdahl home for only so long as the president didn’t manage to make it happen?

But Fox-laced Republican opposition just begs the question. Americans really do seem less willing than Israelis to embrace the principle that you get your people home simply because they’re your people, regardless of what they did or didn’t do, or even of the risk that exchanging them for bad guys might pose. How come?

The answer, I suggest, is that American identity is not like Israeli identity. There’s something chosen about it, and if you seem to choose otherwise, you can be extruded from the community as expressly unAmerican.

This volitional character of American identity dates from the earliest days of the republic, when colonials who opposed independence were denominated Tories and sent packing to Canada. The Revolution made the turncoat general Benedict Arnold into a synonym for traitor.

Punishment for renunciation of American identity was epitomized in “The Man Without a Country,” a short story by Edward Everett Hale published in the Atlantic in 1863. The story tells of a U.S. Army lieutenant who renounces his country during a trial for treason and is consequently sentenced to spend the rest of his days at sea with nary a word of news about the United States. He ends his days having converted his cabin into a patriotic shrine. The story is, in fact, a pro-Union allegory about the Civil War.

The readiness of Americans to identify fellow Americans as unAmerican includes Catholics and other immigrants in the 19th century, leftists in the 20th century, and Muslims in the 21st century. John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” brought down the charge of unAmericanism on all of Marin County. Few have been disturbed by the drone-killing of the teenage American son of the American Islamist preacher Anwar Awlaki.

“Why are we doing anything to get this guy back?” asks Ann Coulter, going on to explain why the deal for Bergdahl was wrong. “He’s ashamed to be an American. He calls America ‘disgusting.’ He wanted to leave, so he left. He got what he wanted.”

The metaphysics of Americanism say that we get back our own only when they deserve it. If they don’t deserve it, they’re not our own.

Categories: Beliefs

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

9 Comments

  1. As a vet, a former Christian-I may believe but will no longer call myself Christian and identify with these hypocrites who have hijacked the word Christian and turned it into a word that identifies itself with hate, hypocrisy and racism. Nope, though others may disagree with my personal decision, I do this because of conscience and nothing else. My conscience is also disturbed by the hate shown by the right in this situation. Bergdahl may have indeed deserted his post for a time, disturbed byy the images of war and death that he saw but he didn’t deserve to become a POW if he did indeed do that nor does he and his family deeserve the hate and even death threats his family have gotten upon his return. This country has allowed itself to turn into a hate filled country, unwilling to forgive anyone or any view that those on the right, mostly, do not agree with. Much thanks to former President Bush and Veep Cheney for this. Your choice Christians, keep following the gospel of hate that Bush and Cheney promoted or follow the words of Jesus. Choose wisely!

    • Lynne Newington

      It’s great a vet has put his sentiments across seeing it in real time.
      The given every Jewish mother their son or daughter becoming a child of all Israel never to be left behind, covering all aspects of paragraph two of the lead article applies to all and with Benjamin Netanyahu born in this timeline will remain the policy of Israel.

  2. Forgot to check off the options to have a email sent when other comments are posted and it is good that I checked for I found that my original email was off by a letter or two. Corrected and checked off. Thanks.

  3. “… which is why no one in the military can be found to criticize the deal. ” Really?? Apparently Berghdals platoon mates, the people who were there, the people who know the facts best, the people who actually served with distinction and honor….don’t count. They must not be real Americans. And neither is Leon Pannetta who vetoed the trade the first time. And neither is Hillary Clinton who is both for and against the trading depending how things turn out…another hard choice.

    The code to leave no man behind is a two way street. It is based on the ethos that each soldier has each others back…when one of those soldiers writes an e-mail claiming the military is a revolting, disgusting lie…..and then abandons his brother soldiers the next day…that ethos bends.

    Notice how I said bends…not breaks. Since i am not an ideologue, like you, I am willing to assess the situation based on the facts and make prudential judgements. In this case, trading 5 top ranked Taliban terrorists who have kill 1,000s of muslims and who want to kill 1,000s of soldiers for a deserter is not a reasonable trade. Especially when you consider the number of soldiers that died trying to find him and secure the 5 Taliban terrorists.

    That’s how you make an ethical decision, Dr Silk, by actually evaluating the motives, acts and consequences. Not by turning everyone into a caricature and impugning the motives of anyone who dares to disagree.

    Since you are such a big believer in supporting the troops, how many tours did you serve in Vietnam?

  4. Given the disproportionate casualty levels between US and opposition forces, 1 US solider is certainly worth more in the grand scheme of things than 5 Talibanis who were not brave enough to engage in suicide attacks.

    Besides, we can get them on the flipside with a drone strike or 6 instead of merely capturing them. It is still far better to make a trade for future hellfire missile bait than seeing youtube video of Bergdahl being beheaded.

  5. I’m puzzled by those in the US who think this swap was a bad deal. Even if Bergdahl did deliberately desert his fellow soldiers, there’s no suggestion he did so because he supports the Taliban, let alone sought to join them. If he is to be tried for desertion or ‘rebellion by email’, surely he is entitled to due process in the US. There seems to me to be just a hint of vigilante justice from those who think he got what he deserves in being captured by the Taliban.

    And the value of these 5 Taliban leaders is also debateable. What quantifiable measure is there of the defensive value of their detainment? Did it impede their (the Taliban’s) capabilities in any significant way or were there others waiting to fill the breach? And who seriously thinks that this is a war to be won in the long term by military means anyway? I note this misplaced sentiment amongst some Pakistani commentators, who are calling for the total destruction of the Taliban following the airport attack at Karachi. The truth is negotiations and political settlements have and will run in parallel with military action, and prisoner swaps are an accepted element of that.

    Mark points out Israel’s readiness to swap hundreds and even thousands of Palestinians for a single captured soldier. The difference though is that, as far as I’m aware, the US does not hold hundreds (of Afghans) in prisons in arbitrary detention awaiting trial like the Israelis do. And in the case of Israel, none of their detainees are considered prisoners of war. Forty percent of the population of male Palestinians since 1967 has at some point been imprisoned by Israel. Currently the number of Palestinian prisoners held without being charged is between 150 and 200.

  6. Sister Geraldine Marie

    As I’ve stated on other news websites, let SGT Bergdahl speak for himself. So he may have not liked the war. Do you know that this very day (June 10th), Iraq is now in the very hands of the extreme fundamentalist Islamic forces that the U.S. was fighting to prevent?! Our blood (priceless) and money (1 trillion according to the news) are all lost for that fiasco.
    I’m a veteran of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and I don’t agree with all these extra wars either! Am I a traitor? It’s the most patriotic thing in the world to denounce war, as far as I’m concerned! Except for WWII (which was still preventable), there is no justification for violence because “…violence is an enemy to justice.”
    And death threats to Bergdahl’s parents? I hope they find the perpetrators and punish them.
    The world has become an incredibly meaner place than ever in history. That means the devil is alive and well, as St. Paul so aptly wrote: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
    The answer is love for God and one another. It’s the most powerful force in the universe. I’m talking about REAL love, costly and sacrificial, not dreamy-eyed and sentimental nonsense.

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