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Maybe We Should Leave Some Men Behind

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The hysterical obsession with Bowe Bergdahl's conduct as a soldier—which has dominated conservative media for more than a week now—is so pitched that it's easy to forget the controversy didn't originate on the institutional right. It began when soldiers who served with Bergdahl—who didn't like or respect Bergdahl, and blamed Bergdahl for the deaths of other soldiers—made their animus public.

Conservatives took it from there, infusing the soldiers' testimonials with the conclusiveness of a jury decision, and, crucially, integrating the verdict into a separate cost-benefit debate over the prisoner swap that secured Bergdahl's release.

That was a mistake. The error is reflected in the fact that conservatives constantly invoke these testimonials to attack Obama, and yet…

What makes their position exceptionally problematic, though, is that these same conservatives then turn around and take great offense at the implication that they aren't 100 percent committed to the U.S. military's "leave no man behind" principle.

In fact, an assumption that Leave No Man Behind is a generally righteous and unquestionable ethos has been the lone constant in this sprawling character drama, despite the fact that the whole thing is built on a reasonable, conservative premise that the ethos is actually flawed.

"Six American soldiers died, and five extremely dangerous terrorists have been released, in order to secure the rescue of a man who abandoned his fellows and abandoned his country," wrote Sonny Bunch with a degree of certainty that should be familiar to anyone who's followed conservative coverage of the story.

The depraved piece of this is the implication that some soldiers are worthier of rescue than others, and that the military should use normative judgments about missing soldiers when determining how much to put on the line to rescue them. That our policy should be "leave men we don't like behind, maybe."

However, the separate implication—that it might not be wise to trade six lives for one—makes perfect sense.

As it happens, the hardened-on-the-right narrative that six soldiers died searching for Bergdahl is extremely questionable. Even if it were unambiguously correct, though, the obvious question wouldn't be whether the sacrifice was worth it for this captured soldier, but for any captured soldier.

The Leave No Man Behind principle essentially holds that cost-benefit analysis is only appropriate in determining how—not whether—to retrieve a prisoner of war. If the optimal plan to find and rescue the prisoner still entails sacrificing several other lives, that's just how it is. Normal incentives don't matter. As applied in the debate over Bergdahl, it's a standard that stems from a misguided, though telling assumption that the U.S. will only be engaged in hostilities with small, weak enemies. It would be completely unfeasible in the event of a major conflict.

So there are bigger lessons here. If you cloak yourself in Leave No Man Behind jingoism, you have to be consistent about it. Which means you also have to be extremely humble about projecting American power. But if you're willing to allow for exceptions, the only moral way to do it is on the basis of risk assessment, not character judgments.

The point isn't that the U.S. military should be composed of and led by hard-nosed individualists, or that the soldier's creed should be subject to a crude, unfeeling economics, at the expense of morale and cohesion. It's that we need to be clear-eyed about the logical consequences of our commitments. Particularly those of us possessed of great hubris about America's role in the world—who also happen to be the ones defensively insisting that their commitment to leaving no man behind is unqualified. Bowe Bergdahl notwithstanding.