Joint Chiefs of Staff: Bergdahl exchange vital to keeping faith with American service members

All seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have written a separate letter to the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee stating their support for the exchange of the five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

For analysis of the legal and policy regime that assigns “one of the highest priorities” to the safe return of isolated personnel in situations like Sgt. Bergadhl’s, I recommend US Army JAG officer Tim Mathews’s guest post on Just Security.

The letters from each of the Joint Chiefs remarkably all include one point: the exchange honored a sacred commitment the military makes to its service members, and a deviation in this instance would have broken the faith within the armed forces.

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, letter: “I concluded the risk posed by the detainees’ future activity would be less grave than breaking faith with our forces in combat;” “I have no doubts about the decision to keep faith with our men and women in uniform.”

Admiral James A. Winnefield, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, letter: “[W]e have a sacred commitment to the young men and women we place in harm’s way that we will never leave any of our fallen on the battlefield. We must reinforce this principle any time it arises. ”

General Raymond T, Odierno, U.S. Army, letter: “I firmly believe the recovery of any American Service Member held as a captive, hostage or prisoner of war, regardless of the circumstances, is both a moral imperative and vital to keeping faith within our Army.”

Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, U.S. Navy, letter: “I strongly support the long-standing U.S. policy to never leave behind our Prisoners of War. Freeing Sergeant Bergdahl honors our commitment to that covenant.”

General James F. Amos, U.S. Marine Corps, letter: “[I]t’s a fundamental principle of Marine combat leadership that we do not leave our people behind on the battlefield; it is our warrior code, and simply what we do as Marines and as a nation.”

General Mark A. Welsh III, Dep’t of the Air Force, letter: “[W]e have a moral obligation to work tirelessly to recover any member of our armed forces held captive. We ask them to risk everything in service to our Nation; we should be willing to accept some level of risk to bring them home.”

General Frank J. Grass, National Guard Bureau, letter: “[T]he pledge to bring our service members home from captivity is sacred within the military community and our nation.”

The letters from General Dempsey, Admiral Winnefield, and General Odierno discuss specific risks involved in the release of the Guantanamo detainees. They are well worth reading for that analysis. 

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.