Aaron Schachter: So deserter or POW? That's the debate now over Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. That and whether President Obama should have authorized a prisoner swap with the Taliban to obtain Bergdahl's freedom. Today, the Taliban released a video showing the moment the American soldier was released last Saturday.
Schachter: In the video you can see a Taliban fighter speak to Bergdahl just before he's whisked off by a waiting US helicopter. The fighter warns him, "Don't come back to Afghanistan. Next time you won't get out alive." The US army is still investigating how Bergdahl wound up being captured five years ago. It will be a while before we know exactly what happened. But believe it or not, this would not be the first time returning POWs get in trouble with military brass. The World's history desk has been digging and Chris Woolf joins me now. Chris, tell me what you found.
Christopher Woolf: Well, no two cases are exactly the same, Aaron. But in 1965, a nineteen-year-old marine named Bobby Garwood went missing from his base in Da Nang in South Vietnam and reemerged fourteen years later in 1979, long after the war had finished, as the last POW to come out of Indo-China alive. And he was treated with some acclaim initially and the widespread belief in his stories about other Americans still being held there, but then the military investigated and ended up prosecuting him a deserter and a collaborator and dishonorable discharged him from the military and stripped him of his back pay and all his future chances of getting benefits from the military.
Schachter: So Garwood, that's one guy. Any more examples?
Woolf: Yeah, at the end of the Korean war there was a large prisoner exchange and some Americans chose to stay in North Korea. Others came back and did face military justice. They were, again, prosecuted sometimes for desertion, but more often for collaborating, and several of them, in fact, ended up doing hard time in military prison for a few years.
Schachter: And what they're being prosecuted for is what?
Woolf: Well, it's a variety of things. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice there are specific ways that you are deemed to have deserted your post or deserted your duty by taking an unauthorized absence, for example, going AWOL and then not returning to base for whatever reason, and of course one of those reasons could be that you're captured by the enemy. So you may have gone off base for a drink, it could have happened in Vietnam occasionally, and then been captured. So what are you? Are you a deserter? Are you AWOL? Are you a POW? You could be all three.
Schachter: Right. And that bears pointing out in the case now with Bergdahl as he could be both a deserter and be punished for that eventually and be a POW deserving of all the US can bring to free him.
Schachter: OK. So Bergdahl, prisoner exchange, very public today. Has that happened before?
Woolf: Yeah, the US has a long history of exchanges of prisoners of war, but there is a gray area here of people who were released in exchange for Bergdahl counted as prisoners of war or some other kind of detainee.
Schachter: Right. In this case whether or not they were terrorists. That's the US context. What about elsewhere in the world?
Woolf: Well, I think one good example that we could look at with a similar kind of experience with dealing with insurgency/ guerrilla terrorist violence would be Israel. Israel, as you know, Aaron, as a former Middle East corespondent for The World, is Israel is happy to exchange dozens or hundreds of prisoners in exchange for just the remains of dead soldiers. But of course the biggest example would have been in 2011 when Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was being held by the Palestinians for five years in the Gaza Strip, was released in exchange for over a thousand detainees and amongst them were two hundred and eighty men who were serving life terms for planning and perpetrating acts of terror which may have claimed the lives of over five hundred Israelis altogether.
Schachter: Now, that Shalit swap and presumably the Bergdahl exchange is based on this "leave no man behind" philosophy. Is that universal with militaries around the world?
Woolf: No, as you may have heard the Pentagon spokesman say this week that it doesn't matter if you fall off a ship or you're pushed or you jump, the ship is going to come back and get you. That's not always the case. Sometimes the mission is more important and the convoy has to carry on and leave you in the water regardless.
Schachter: The World's history guy, Chris Woolf. Thanks a lot.
Woolf: Thanks, Aaron.