Obama was right
Americans don’t have a common ancestry. Therefore, we have to work hard to build national solidarity. We go in for more overt displays of patriotism than in most other countries: politicians wearing flag lapel pins, everybody singing the national anthem before games, saying the Pledge of Allegiance at big meetings, revering sacred creedal statements, such as the Gettysburg Address.
We need to do this because national solidarity is essential to the health of the country. This feeling of solidarity means that we do pull together and not apart in times of crisis, such as after the attacks on 9/11. Despite all our polarization, we do accept the election results, even when the other party wins. People in New York do uncomplainingly send tax dollars to help people in New Mexico. We are able to assimilate waves of immigration.
National solidarity is especially important for the national defense. Men and women serve in the armed forces for a variety of reasons, but one of them is the awareness that it is an extraordinary privilege to be an American, that it is a debt that needs to be repaid with service.
Soldiers in combat not only protect their buddies, they show amazing devotion to anyone in the uniform, without asking about state or ethnicity. This is the cohesion that makes armies effective.
These commitments, so crucial, are based on deep fraternal sentiments that have to be nurtured with action. They are based on the notion that we are members of one national community. We will not abandon each other; we will protect one another; heroic measures will be taken to leave no one behind. Even if it is just a lifeless body that we are retrieving, it is important to repatriate all Americans.
The president and vice president, the only government officials elected directly by the entire nation, have a special responsibility to nurture this national solidarity. So, of course, President Barack Obama had to take all measures necessary to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Of course, he had to do all he could do to not forsake a U.S. citizen.
It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl had deserted his post or not. It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share.
Soldiers don’t risk their lives only for those Americans who deserve it; they do it for the nation as a whole.
It is not dispositive either that the deal to release Bergdahl may put others at risk. The five prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a swap for Bergdahl seem like terrible men who could do harm. But their release may have been imminent anyway. And the loss of national fraternity that would result if we start abandoning Americans in the field would be a greater and more long lasting harm.
Israel once traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to get back one of their own. Another time they traded 1,150 prisoners to get back three of their own. They did it because of a deep awareness that national cohesion is essential to national survival. They did it because Israeli parents share a common emotional bond; the imprisonment of one of their children touches them all. In polarized countries, especially, you have to take care of your own. If you don’t, the corrosive effects will be cumulative.
It doesn’t matter either that the U.S. government ended up dealing with terrorists. In the first place, the Taliban is not a terrorist organization the way al-Qaida is. America has always tried to reach a negotiated arrangement with the Taliban, and this agreement may be a piece of that. In the second place, this is the dirty world we live in. Sometimes national leaders are called upon to take the sins of the situation upon themselves for the good of the country, to deal with the hateful and compromise with the loathsome. That’s their form of sacrifice and service.
So Obama made the right call. If he is to be faulted, it would be first for turning the release into an Oprah-esque photo-op, a political stunt filled with inaccurate rhetoric and unworthy grandstanding. It would next be for his administration’s astonishing tone-deafness about how this swap would be received.
Most of all, the Obama administration can be faulted for not at least trying to use the language of communal solidarity to explain this decision. Apparently, we have become such a hyper-individualized culture that it is impossible to even develop an extended argument on how individual cases fit into the larger fabric of the common good.
Still, the president’s instincts were right. His sense of responsibility for a fellow countryman was correct. It’s not about one person; it’s about the principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all, which is the basis of citizenship.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.