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Why the Left Misunderstands—and Misrepresents—the Right’s Concerns with the Bergdahl Deal

Bowe Bergdahl
Bowe Bergdahl / AP
• June 10, 2014 12:57 pm

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When it comes to Bowe Bergdahl, the (alleged) deserter whose (alleged) desertion led in part or in whole to the death of multiple American soldiers and for whom the Obama administration traded five al Qaeda-aligned Taliban commanders, the left seems to be having an extremely difficult time understanding why the right has an issue with the deal. "Am I correct that the American right-wing has spent the day arguing we should have left an American soldier behind?" MSNBC host Chris Hayes snarked as the story broke. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler, meanwhile, denounced "the hysterical obsession with Bowe Bergdahl’s conduct as a soldier."

If we’re being entirely honest, those of us on the right are similarly flummoxed. For instance, I joked on Twitter that I wasn’t sure if Chris Hayes was being a partisan hack or if he was just being obtuse. At first, I thought it was obvious partisan nonsense; as time passed, I was less sure. Several days of unrelenting and increasingly absurd coverage—including an A1 New York Times story attacking the behavior of Bergdahl’s unit prior to his disappearance and a ThinkProgress post asking "Did Sergeant Bergdahl Desert The Army Or Did The Army Desert Him?"— convinced me that the left and right have reached an impasse. The left simply doesn’t understand what the right is arguing, and vice versa. There are, it seems, two key areas of disagreement.

The first has to do with the idea of "doing whatever it takes to bring Bergdahl home." Let’s leave aside the fact that, following his return, a flood of new facts about his (alleged) desertion came to light. Most conservatives arguing for the Obama administration to secure the return of Bergdahl were thinking of something along the lines of the operation to rescue Jessica Lynch—or, more dramatically, the efforts of John Rambo in Rambo II—when they said that the government should do whatever it takes to bring Bergdahl home. When conservatives say we should rescue our POWs, they mean, "Leave a trail of dead enemies in your wake as you snatch our guy from the enemy’s clutches." The right may be willing to countenance trading terrorists for hostages, but the situation must be quite dire—and the guys given up of modest importance.

In short, those on the right see a huge difference between "killing enemies to rescue a soldier" and "rescuing a soldier by giving high-value targets back to the enemy so they can go back to killing Americans and Afghans." The left, meanwhile, draws no such distinction. The goal, in their eyes, is simple: bring the guy home. The left’s stated worry is about the health and wellbeing of the American soldier who has been taken hostage, and the means to ensure his health and wellbeing are of little concern. The ends, as it were, justify the means.

The second argument has to do with the concept of "Leave No Man Behind." Before we discuss this, though, we should discuss a fundamental misunderstanding the left has about the right’s veneration of, and appreciation for, the military. The left, broadly speaking, sees the military as a dumping ground for the poor and the destitute, a desperate job of last resort for people who are "forced" to enlist because they have no better options. After all, these are the men that Hayes has said he feels "uncomfortable" calling "a hero." The right, meanwhile, sees the military as a place of honor and sacrifice, a noble profession where one does one’s duty in order to protect the nation and keep its people free.

As a result of this discrepancy, the right and left take very different views of how the phrase "Leave No Man Behind" applies to someone who (allegedly) deserts. To the left, a deserter is just another soldier—one of those poor, desperate individuals who has made a poor life choice and an American like any other. As a result, the left thinks we "should do whatever it takes" to bring the deserter home. To the right, however, a deserter is someone who has spat on everything the right holds dear about military life, military values, and military morality. To the right, a deserter is barely a soldier any longer: They may want that soldier’s return, but they want it so he can be forced to face punishment for his crime, for his failure to do his duty. As a result, the right is willing to trade much less to secure the return of a deserter. Recent polling shows members of the military agree with the right on this: A Pew poll showed that just six percent of veterans sympathized with Bergdahl and 68 percent disagreed with the deal struck to free him, compared to just 16 percent who approved.

It’s worth noting that the dustup between the left and right over the Bergdahl deal almost perfectly mirrors social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s description of the ways in which the left and right differ on issues of morality. "Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order—these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression," William Saletan wrote in the New York Times about Haidt’s work. The left cares about Bergdahl's health and treating him as they would any other soldier; the right cares about patriotism and valor and law and order. We are, in a way, talking past each other.

Haidt’s work can also help the right understand the left’s snide dismissal of their concerns over the Bergdahl deal. "Self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves ‘very liberal,’ were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals," Saletan wrote about Haidt. "Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment."

If the left wants to wrestle with the right’s objection to the Bergdahl deal, they must set aside their presumption of rationality. Unless, of course, they’re more interested in grandstanding and point-scoring than actually understanding where their political opposites are coming from.

Published under: Chris Hayes, MSNBC, The New Republic