D-Day, Bergdahl, honor and distinction

D-Day, Bergdahl, honor and distinction

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American Cemetery, Colleville sur Mer, Normandy / Photo: Denis Cappellin, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
American Cemetery, Colleville sur Mer, Normandy / Photo: Denis Cappellin, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2014 — “He served the United States with honor and distinction.”

Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, began shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944. It started with an aerial bombardment and the landing of 24,000 airborne troops. Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne invasion in history, came at 6:30 in the morning.

The Germans were deceived, believing the main invasion would come at Calais, but even so they had fortified the 50-mile stretch of coast with gun towers, mines, barbed wire and other obstacles. 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel that day. Allied casualties were 12,000, including 4,414 dead. German losses were about 1,000.

Courage is not the absence of fear in the face of danger, but the performance of duty in spite of fear. D-Day was spectacular in its scope, but the men and women of the Allied — and even enemy — armed forces did their duty, day after miserable day, through the bloodiest war in history. Many served with honor and distinction.

The fellowship of those who have served in the military in times of war understand far better than we who have not ever will about service with honor and distinction. Most serve with honor. They do their duty in miserable conditions or good, whether fresh or fatigued. They do their duty under fire, or under threat of fire, and so serve with courage.

Distinction, by its nature, is more elusive. Distinction is remarkable, above and beyond the ordinary. Many individuals have served with distinction, and even some units. It is hard to define distinction, but even those of us who have not served can often recognize it when we see it.

The trade of five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl may have been good policy or bad. America has bargained with her enemies before, even when they were state terrorists like Stalin and North Korea’s Kim dynasty. We have bargained with non-state terrorists through intermediaries. On principle it may be a terrible idea, but presidents do it.

It’s not true that we will never leave a man behind. If we can retrieve him at acceptable cost, we do it, but if the price is too high, we will leave one man or a hundred in enemy hands until a better price can be negotiated. It is up to the president and his aides to decide on the acceptable price. The crew of the Pueblo waited 11 months, the American embassy staff in Iran waited 444 days, and Bergdahl waited five years.

Whether President Obama’s failure to notify Congress ahead of time of the trade was a serious legal matter will be hashed out by Congress and the courts. His use of a signing statement gives Obama a legal argument for acting, and other presidents have ignored inconvenient requirements to keep Congress in the loop. This will play out in politics.

The disappointing, two-fold failure of the Obama Administration isn’t in the trade, nor in the failure to advise Congress ahead of time. It isn’t that there’s evidence that Bergdahl may be a deserter. It takes a military inquiry and a court-martial to decide that, and the president was under no obligation to try and convict Bergdahl on his own.

The first failure was Obama’s Rose Garden announcement. That event featured Obama and Bergdahl’s parents as the stars. But in spite of the recruiting slogan, “an Army of one,” the Army isn’t about individuals, but about comrades in arms, individuals united into one. There should have been no stars. Obama’s Rose Garden event trivialized the swap.

The worse failure was that throwaway line from Susan Rice, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.”

You don’t serve with honor and distinction just because you happened to show up that day; you don’t graduate with honors just because you passed all your courses; you don’t win Olympic gold just because you qualified for your national team.

Members of the Obama Administration probably know that. Yet they seem completely unable to recognize honor and distinction in the military. When Rice said that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction, it was simple boilerplate. She had no clue what his service record was, she probably didn’t think it mattered; she just said what sounded good.

For those who have served, and for all the rest who understand honor and distinction, that’s simply offensive. It was the tone-deaf utterance of an administration that knows nothing and cares nothing about military service. In the wake of the VA scandal, it was another reminder that the Obama Administration thinks of the military like a pre-school, where everyone gets a star for napping with “honor and distinction.” People like them don’t “do” the military, hence people like them don’t get the military.

The administration’s failure is shared by armchair warriors all over the country. We’ve turned so many people into “heroes” that we use the same word for a Medal of Honor recipient that we do for a basketball player. “Support our heroes”? If the uniform makes you a hero, then doesn’t Bergdahl deserve the honor, even if the worst accusations against him turn out to be true? Heroism and honor are slogans for bumper-stickers.

Seventy years ago today, 160,000 men were dropped by parachute into the night or went in the dark across the English Channel, to face an enemy whose strength they didn’t know, with certain knowledge that many would be killed or maimed. Many of them probably vomited on the way, and wrote their wills, then did their duty for their country, for their beliefs, or just for the friends who had their backs. On that day the bravery, honor, heroism and distinction were real, not just slogans, and they were almost commonplace.

Let us honor those who served and those who serve by remembering what honor and distinction really are. And remembering, we can cultivate them as qualities of excellence in our own lives. We honor those who have sacrificed for this country by being the country that their sacrifice deserves.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.