Think Again: A different kind of prisoner exchange

As numerically one-sided as several Israeli prisoner exchanges may have been, our enemies have never suspected that we would not continue to fight them.

June 12, 2014 15:04
Bereaved families protest Palestinian prisoner release outside Ofer prison, October 28, 2013.

Protest against Palestinian prisoner release 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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Gilad Schalit is back in the news – not in Israel, but in America. Last month, US President Barack Obama made the decision to exchange five top Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years.

Defenders of the president’s decision cited Israel’s exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit in 2011 as an example of the high price that democracies pay to gain the return of their servicemen.

All prisoner exchanges are fraught with ambivalent emotions and thoughts. Photographs of the captured soldier and his grieving parents have a wrenching emotional impact. On the other side is the knowledge that at least some of those released will, in all likelihood, murder again, and leave new victims and grieving loved ones – only the latter do not yet have names or photographs. They remain abstractions and thus exercise less of a pull on our emotions.

Yet no matter how we came out on the Schalit exchange, I cannot imagine there was a single Israeli Jew who did not rejoice upon the prisoner’s return to his family. Obama was obviously hoping for just such a national feel-good moment to distract from the ongoing Veterans Affairs scandal over fraud when he made his dramatic Rose Garden announcement on May 31, flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani.

It was not to be, however – primarily because the Schalit precedent is inapposite as applied to Bergdahl. Perhaps Schalit should have been more attentive in training, but he was captured against his will and did nothing that would deliberately endanger his fellow soldiers.

Not so Bergdahl. Though US National Security Adviser Susan Rice described Bergdahl as having been “captured on the battlefield” and having served with “honor and distinction,” it soon became clear that these statements were yet another example of her willingness to tell any lie at the president’s behest. Far from serving with distinction, Bergdahl walked off his base in the middle of the night – a step he had been contemplating for some time.

Prior to leaving the base, he had shipped most of his belongings home to his parents. He had also asked a team leader if it would create problems if he left the base with sensitive equipment. Told that it would, he left his rifle and night-vision goggles behind when he wandered off. The Washington Post reported last week on Afghani villagers who said he had approached them seeking the Taliban. An internal army investigation concluded that he voluntarily left his base.

Rice surely knew this when she went on CNN’s State of the Union to defend the exchange. Her comments outraged soldiers who served together with Bergdahl because his desertion endangered them all. In the immediate aftermath of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the commanding officer for the three easternmost provinces of Afghanistan ordered “all operations [to] cease until the missing soldier is found.” And for months afterwards, Bergdahl’s unit was consumed with trying to find him. A number of those search missions resulted in casualties. CNN’s Jake Tapper listed six US soldiers killed in those missions, and others were left permanently crippled or paralyzed.

The other side of the equation – those released – also demonstrates there is no comparison between the prisoner exchange for Schalit and that for Bergdahl. Though Obama released only five prisoners, they were all senior figures in the Taliban command structure, badly depleted by years of war. An anonymous senior Defense Department official was quoted as describing their return as tantamount to handing over five four-star generals – or in Israeli terms, releasing five Marwan Barghoutis.

Several of the Taliban commanders had long-standing contacts with al-Qaida, and two are wanted by the UN for war crimes in connection with the murder of thousands of Afghani Shi’ites.

The Joint Task Force Guantanamo that initially interrogated the five senior Taliban figures came to the conclusion that each represented a “high risk” of returning to battle if released. Even the Guantanamo Review Task Force, created by Obama for the express purpose of emptying the base of prisoners, included all five of these senior Taliban commanders on its list of 48 detainees who should be held until the end of all hostilities.

Michael Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under Obama, said it was “very, very likely that the five Taliban leaders would return to the fight.”

By releasing the five, the US appears to be throwing in the towel on preventing the Taliban from once again seizing control of Afghanistan, when America plans to depart at the end of 2016.

Afghani officials were predictably infuriated, The New York Times reported on Monday. The Americans speak of their imminent departure, one senior Afghani official noted, without taking into account that they will be left behind to work things out (or not) with the Taliban.

Even from an American point of view, the move conveyed the message that the more than 2,000 American combat deaths in Afghanistan will likely turn out to be in vain. Hardly an encouraging thought for the 30,000 US troops still stationed there.

As numerically one-sided as several Israeli prisoner exchanges may have been, our enemies have never suspected that we would not continue to fight them.

Last summer, while driving through the Canadian Rockies, my wife and I spent many hours listening to a series of lectures by the late Prof. J. Rufus Fears on thinkers who have shaped the world. In two of those lectures, Fears juxtaposes two views of war.

In the first lecture, he quoted at length from two of the most famous funeral orations: Pericles’s oration over the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War, and US president Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both spoke of the nobility of the fallen and of the ideals for which they fell – the equality before the law and liberty of the Athenian polis in Pericles’s oration, and the preservation of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal” in Lincoln’s.

Fears’s next lecture created a troubling juxtaposition to the nobility of sacrifice described by Pericles and Lincoln. It consisted almost entirely of readings from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written, in which the youthful German narrator quickly comes to view the slaughter in the brutal trench warfare of World War I as senseless. He and his friends swiftly lose all the enthusiasm instilled by their high-school teacher for fighting on behalf of the Fatherland, and fantasize that Kaiser Wilhelm and his fellow leaders should battle it out among themselves with clubs.

Those lectures came back this week, as I read a long and largely sympathetic 2012 Rolling Stone article trying to piece together Bergdahl’s murky motivations. I realized that there is another respect in which Schalit and Bergdahl could not be more different: Israeli military service is consistently closer to the heroic type described by Pericles and Lincoln, than to the senseless slaughter so poignantly described by Remarque.

Israeli soldiers know there is no choice. Without the IDF, the Jewish state would be overrun by enemies bent on the destruction of everyone they love. And with the glaring exception of the last 60 hours of the Second Lebanon War, in which 33 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in a major ground action that could not possibly have attained any meaningful objective, Israeli soldiers do not generally have to fear that they are pawns of their leaders’ vanity or political ambitions.

Presumably most American troops feel something of the same idealism, at least at the beginning when they enlist in an all-volunteer army. That is why I would always tend to prefer a candidate with a military background in an American election.

The original invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government that continued to shelter al-Qaida after 9/11 needed no further justification.

And it was a side benefit to free the Afghani people of a fanatic Islamist government that forbids women and girls from being seen by doctors. Bergdahl told his parents that he was going to Afghanistan to help villagers learn to defend themselves, presumably from the Taliban. Accordingly, at the time of his deployment, he was reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time – about the humanitarian efforts to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet I imagine that by the time Bergdahl left his base, with who knows what plan in mind, he had come to realize that little of what he was doing in Afghanistan had to do with bringing education to girls, and that the alternative to the Taliban was a group of almost equally primitive, authoritarian and corrupt tribal warlords. He may have also suspected – and certainly would today – that his continued presence would do little to ensure the Taliban did not return to power as soon as America departs.

Obviously, no government can tolerate soldiers determining for themselves whether it is still worth risking their lives, and even more so when their decisions endanger the lives of their fellow soldiers.

But it still is a source of pride to live in a country where soldiers are not confronted by such decisions, and know what they are fighting for.

The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

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