The Myth of Not Leaving Soldiers Behind

In the wake of the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban people from the president to generals to pundits. I wonder where this myth originated?

The reality is somewhat different. When the cease fire that brought a halt to the Korean War (it’s still not officially over) took place although the North Koreans released about 500 American prisoners the Pentagon believed that they continued to hold nearly a thousand more, as published by the New York Times in 1996.

Whether American prisoners remained in Viet Nam after the accords concluding the Viet Nam War were signed in 1973 is a matter of some controversy. The Pentagon and several Congressional investigations have insisted that none were but activists have accused the Pentagon and Congress of conducting investigations with directed findings. It’s possible that several hundred American prisoners were left behind in Viet Nam and never released. We can’t really be sure.

I think the truth of the matter is that insisting that we never leave soldiers behind is believed to be more conducive to maintaining morale, that the idea is more aspirational than reality, and that we can, do, and have left prisoners behind. The only way to assure otherwise is to insist on unconditional surrender by the enemy and be willing to back that up with action. That’s a strategy we haven’t followed for 70 years.

5 comments… add one

  • TastyBits

    As a Marine, I am not sure what the Army does, and since I was in the infantry, I was concerned with the battlefield. Never leaving a Marine behind usually refers to the wounded, dead, pinned-down, or lost. You go in as a unit, and you go out as a unit.

    Obviously, this is not always possible, but it means that you try long after it makes sense to a civilian. Of course, little that a Marine, especially a grunt, does makes any sense to a civilian.

  • PD Shaw

    Since we know that an earlier deal negotiated by Clinton was ultimately rejected, we were willing to leave Bergdahl behind as well, or at the very least willing to risk him being left behind for want of a better deal.

    I don’t like the absolutist jingles being used: We never negotiate with terrorists. Well, I don’t think the Taliban are terrorists or conventional ones at least. I think the notion is actually that we won’t submit to blackmail, which is what Carter said initially about the U.S. hostages to wide approval. We are fighting a war with the Taliban, and they captured one of our guys. And I believe negotiations with insurgents are a recognized COIN tool.

    And we absolutely don’t leave soldiers behind irks me because it gives us a poor negotiating position. If you find yourself in a negotiating position without the ability to walk away from a poor offer, you are about to get hosed.

  • PD Shaw

    @Tastbits, the underlying premise of “Saving Private Ryan” makes no sense to me. I don’t believe the army would so purposefully risk the lives of some men to extract the last brother. Good movie, so I try to not think so much about that part.

  • steve

    I like how you phrased that PD. We should not give in to blackmail. We should negotiate with terrorists when it is to our benefit. (I also think we need to have a better consistent definition of terrorist, but I suspect that is too nuanced for most people.) I think there is a difference in what Dave talks about. We had soldiers missing and that they could still be detained, but we did not know. We obviously left defectors behind. In this case it was a single soldier (pretty remarkable that we only had one taken prisoner in 12 years) and we knew he was alive and a prisoner. In that case, I think you make a sincere effort to get him back. The question then centers upon the price.

    Steve

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    The part I could relate to was when Pvt. Ryan refused to leave his unit. The mutiny was the part I still I do not get. In the Marine Corps, there is a chain of command and lawful orders, and both are ingrained into the infantry.

    Pvt. Ryan captures the phrases meaning to a grunt. He was not leaving his fellow soldiers behind. It is more than just a phrase tossed around for political gain.

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