American Hypocrisy: Maltreatment of Veterans and the Crucifixion of Bowe Bergdahl

USA PFC BoweBergdahl ACU Cropped

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, prior to his 2009 capture. (United States Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

On Friday, June 13, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrived in the United States after six years of Taliban imprisonment in Afghanistan. There were no flags or banners. The Idaho town that had held vigils every year since his disappearance and formed a support network for the family that only wanted their son back was forced to cancel the welcome-home celebration in his honor. His family received death threats. He was labeled a deserter by Congressional Republicans and the media. His release caused a political firestorm. This is not how our soldiers deserve to be treated, especially those who have been prisoners of war. Bowe Bergdahl deserved to be brought home at any price. He does not deserve the character assassination and political uproar that has ensued as a result of his release.

The war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in United States history. As it comes to a close, veterans will return to this country with wounds visible and invisible, and our Coalition partners will look to us for leadership on the care of those veterans. If there is one group of people that do not deserve to be subject to the whims of domestic politics, it is our nation’s veterans. Our men and women in uniform fight to keep our political process strong, not to be victims to its peculiarities at best, and its hypocrisies, at worst. Especially recently, our government has failed at this mission.

It has been a troubled few weeks for United States veterans. First, there were revelations that administrators at Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals across the nation lied about wait times for treatment and cooked the record keeping books in order to make bonuses and meet performance quotas at the expense of providing healthcare to veterans. The scandal led to the resignation of General Erik Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Then, in a prisoner exchange on May 31, 2014, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five of their own incarcerated at Guantanamo under the condition that they remain in Qatar for one year. Nearly five years earlier, on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl walked off his military base in the dead of night – whether he intended to return remains a mystery – and was captured by the Taliban in the hours that followed. The Haqqani Network, a Taliban outlet created by the United States’ early mishandling of the war, help Bergdahl captive.

While veterans in Phoenix waited in pain for essential treatment, Bergdahl too languished in Taliban prison. Bergdahl was tortured and, in a proof of life video provided to the United States government in December, appeared to be drugged, non responsive and frail. The plight of Bowe Bergdahl is, in many ways, similar to the plight of veterans back home in the United States who waited weeks, even months, for healthcare from their country. Both Bergdahl and veterans denied coverage at the VA made incalculable sacrifices for their country. Both Bergdahl and the veterans back home found themselves at a moment when they needed their country most.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of American civil society has inexplicably failed to make this connection. The media and the public have expressed indignation at the failings of the VA to provide adequate healthcare to our veterans, while politicians in Congress have – in uncharacteristically fast fashion, for Congressional standards – passed legislation to overhaul the VA. Their bill would give veterans access to more providers, give the department secretary more power to fire employees and force more transparency to fix problems like fudged wait times before they become an epidemic.

This outrage is justified, and we should be proud of our leaders for taking steps to remedy the problem. But the question still remains: where is the equal outrage to the treatment of Bowe Bergdahl? Where too is the appreciation for his safe return?

Politicians and the media were quick to condemn Bergdahl’s release in a public relations blitz tantamount to character assassination. The objections – mostly from Congressional Republicans – were numerous. They included allegations that the Obama administration had released dangerous enemy prisoners, used vital resources to free an alleged deserter and broken a law requiring the administration to give Congress a 30-day notice before transferring any detainees from Guantanamo.

An article in the Washington Post, shamefully titled “Why the Bowe Bergdahl deal is a political loser,” cited a CBS news poll that revealed 49% of Americans think that the deal will increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, and 56% think that the price paid was “too high,” statistics likely borne out of the statements of politicians and pundits, and statistics that miserably fail a fact check. First, though the five Taliban officers released have been connected to al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that they supported its international jihad against the United States. Captured just weeks after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban five were actually fighting other Afghans in the country’s civil war, according to CIA director John Brennan. Second, the deal mandates that they stay in Qatar for a year—by the time they “return to the battlefield,” the US will be well on its way to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Taliban expert Anand Gopal has said that of the five – who haven’t been with the Taliban since 2001 – only two have the potential to impact the battle between Afghanistan and insurgents.

Articles like the one above are self-fulfilling prophesies, because their misinformation is to blame for the very statistics they cite. If anything, the Taliban five and their allies are more likely to pose a threat to the United States because of how they were treated and detained in Guantanamo, not because of the ties they had to an organization 13 years ago.

I don’t know if Bergdahl was a deserter. It is appalling that some would suggest an American soldier who fights to defend the right to be innocent until proven guilty is convicted of desertion in a trial by media, and not in a trial by a jury of his peers. Anyone who doesn’t wait for the facts to come in is making a terrible mistake.

The Taliban threatened to execute Bergdahl if news of the prisoner exchange leaked. This obviously does not absolve the Obama administration of breaking the law, but it does offer a compelling reason why they chose secrecy over transparency. This should be the sole source of outrage over the Bergdahl release, because it is completely isolated from Bergdahl’s character. Tragically, elected officials have mixed criticism of the Obama administration with criticism of Bergdahl and the deal that saved his life.

Both the swap for Bergdahl and the scandal over healthcare provisions at the VA have highlighted a dangerous misconception among politicians and the media that demands fixing. Our veterans have risked their lives to defend the principles of life and liberty that we hold dear. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice and all return scarred. For those who live on, it is the duty of the United States to honor their sacrifices, and every time we fall short of this goal is one time too many.

For politicians and pundits, it is unfortunately too easy to speak out in favor of domestic solutions to domestic veteran problems while treating the Bergdahl case with such a different eye. That needs to change. Our veterans have fought to defend the right of “all men to be created equal.” That means that all veterans, whether they are home or imprisoned abroad, deserve equal assistance when they are in their darkest hour of need. Whether we have to pass legislation or exchange the prisoners of the enemy, no price is too high to pay.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Unknown Power of Shadow Monarchs

Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde

Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde wave to crowds in Brussels after Philippe’s swearing in as the new Belgian monarch. July 21, 2013. Michael Thaidigsmann (via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know that Norway’s King can legally dismiss the Norwegian government with a simple stroke of his pen? In a world where international norms of democracy seem to reign supreme, it is easy to forget that 44 nations ultimately answer to sovereign monarchs as the supreme heads of state. While the degree of power associated with sovereign monarchs varies according to each type of monarchical system (absolute monarchy vs. constitutional monarchy), these royal sovereigns generally possess tremendous power relative to their countries’ elected officials. Sovereigns in constitutional monarchies generally do not exercise their powers, and their role in democratic countries has become largely ceremonial through legislation or convention. However, these monarchs still possess tremendous reserve powers and can legally invoke royal prerogatives at any time. I call these monarchs, “shadow monarchs,” as their roles and powers appear subservient to their countries’ elected leaders. In fact, this is often not the case as their powers are far-reaching. These often-underestimated sovereigns deserve our attention today – in 2014 – in a world where kingdoms and autocracy are often viewed as relics of the past.

There are generally two types of monarchies that exist today. The first type is as an absolute monarchy, in which the sovereign possesses supreme autocratic powers over his state and people. The second type is a constitutional monarchy, in which a system of government is established by a constitution or convention that mandates some form of an elected government overseen by a monarch. In almost all monarchies, succession is hereditary. Only a few monarchies, such as Cambodia and Kuwait, allow citizens to select a new sovereign from within the royal family. The majority of monarchies have an ironclad succession process. This continuous rotation of power and wealth among a select few royal families ensures the survival of an elite class that is inaccessible to the general population.

Absolute monarchies still exist today, but they are very few in number. These countries include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Brunei, Swaziland, and Vatican City. In these nations, the sovereign has absolute control over his state’s resources and population. Powers include setting the country’s general direction, such as Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, who directed Saudi Arabia’s budget to match his personal priorities of technological and economic progress to modernize society in the 1970s. On the other hand, monarchs may utilize their state’s resources to satisfy their personal needs and desires, such as the acquisition of luxury items such as Oman’s “Super Yacht.” In these societies, there is virtually no opportunity for representative government and all power is concentrated in the hands of one person. No wonder absolute monarchies frequently draw heavy criticism from the international community

Even if an absolute monarch’s dramatic level of power seems foreign and excessive to the democratically oriented observer, this level of authoritarianism is to be expected from such a system of government. More surprising and interesting are the powers reserved for royals of constitutional monarchies with democratic systems of government, or shadow monarchies. There is a diverse set of countries that fall into this category, including Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Thailand, Jordan, and Denmark. Perhaps the most significant and popular shadow monarch of the contemporary period has been the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (UK), who officially exercises authority over 15 Commonwealth realms in addition to the UK. Official descriptions regarding the duties of the monarch in England suggest a more “ceremonial” role as a symbol of “stability, continuity, and national focus” rather than an executive role. However, England does not have a written constitution, and many of the duties that have been undertaken by Parliament were delegated by the monarchy out of “convention.” In other words, the Queen has transferred some of her official duties as Head of State to the Parliament, although she can invoke her right to royal prerogative at anytime. The legislature in the UK can pass laws, but those possible affecting “the Crown’s interests” must receive the consent of the Monarch. The Crown has invoked the power of the royal consent and veto for at least 39 pieces of legislation in the contemporary period. The Queen also possesses other powers such as dismissing/appointing the Prime Minister and other ministers, declaring war as head of the Royal British Armed Forces (British soldiers swear allegiance to the Monarch), and making treaties. The royal prerogative in the case of the Queen of the UK and other Commonwealth realms is very robust, and her powers are clearly more than strictly ceremonial.

Not all shadow monarchies possess the same degree of power, however. Belgium and Sweden stand on opposite ends of the spectrum of constitutional monarchies. The Monarchy of Belgium is relatively powerful and similar to the Monarchy of the United Kingdom. The King is endowed with numerous powers according to the Belgian Constitution, such as signing and promulgating laws passed by the Federal Parliament, acting as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and appointing/dismissing ministers of government. In addition, Article 88 of the Belgian Constitution states, “the King’s person is inviolable, his ministers are responsible.” This law basically means that the monarch possesses immunity from any type of prosecution. Clearly, the Monarch of Belgium is rather powerful and can dominate his elected counterparts if he so chooses. However, the Monarch of Sweden is much weaker in comparison. Sweden’s monarch was essentially stripped of his executive authority in 1975 by legislation, thus reducing the sovereign to a purely ceremonial role. Therefore, the King of Sweden is no longer considered a chief executive of the government and does not have nearly the same degree of reserved rights or privileges as the King of Belgium.

Besides conventional governmental authority and power, many monarchs also hold a position of religious or moral authority. The King of Thailand, for example, is designated as the “Upholder of the Buddhist religion and Upholder of all religions.” The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is awarded the title, “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” and is frequently referred to as the “Defender of the Faith.” These roles, while sometimes not well defined, endow various monarchs from across the globe with a sense of moral authority and superiority. By being placed at the head of religious life in addition to political life, these monarchs are afforded even greater power, influence, and legitimacy.

Shadow monarchies that permeate the globe are vestiges of a different era. As the United States seeks to foster a democratic world order, it is rather perplexing that some of these monarchs still possess such tremendous power today. Elected governments of constitutional monarchies seem to be chipping away at the authority of their respective sovereign monarchs through legislation or convention, but much power still rests in the hands of this elite class. Debating the moral implications and efficacy of these monarchical systems is a different matter, but it cannot be denied that the power of these monarchs is certainly underestimated and, perhaps more importantly, unknown.