Political Myopia

A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the window of the Hailey Paint and Supply store on Main Street June 1, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving with U.S. Armys 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktika Province. Yesterday he was released after a swap for 5 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay was arranged. Bergdahl was considered the only U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
June 2, 2014, 4:01 p.m.

“Where you stand de­pends on where you sit.”

It is an age-old ex­pres­sion that I’ve heard a thou­sand times and of­ten found quite rel­ev­ant. In­tel­li­gent and hon­est people can be look­ing at the same ques­tion, but through dif­fer­ent lenses, and thus see dif­fer­ent things. Sadly, though, in today’s cul­ture, rarely can there be a reas­on­able dif­fer­ence of opin­ion. Any­one hold­ing an al­tern­at­ive view is seen as stu­pid, un­know­ledge­able, dis­hon­est, cor­rupt, hy­po­crit­ic­al, or some com­bin­a­tion there­of.

The con­tro­versy over the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to trade five Taliban de­tain­ees from the Guantanamo Bay pris­on for Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl is a good ex­ample of how dif­fer­ing per­spect­ives can lead to dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions. In June 2009, dur­ing a com­bat de­ploy­ment in the Pak­tika province of Afgh­anistan, Ber­g­dahl was either cap­tured by in­sur­gents of the Haqqani net­work or he slipped away from his com­bat out­post and unit, pos­sibly turn­ing him­self over to the par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent Taliban-af­fil­i­ate.

Two years ago, our son Dav­id, who is now out of the Army, served a six-month de­ploy­ment dur­ing “the surge” as an en­lis­ted man with the 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion. He faced the same Haqqani net­work (among oth­er Taliban-re­lated in­sur­gents) as Ber­g­dahl, but in Ghazni, an­oth­er east­ern province ad­ja­cent to Pak­tika. He be­lieves that the trade may have been a mis­take, or could have been done more quietly. Dav­id ex­plains that Amer­ic­an sol­diers are trained to do everything pos­sible to avoid cap­ture and, if taken, to es­cape. When en­ter­ing a com­bat area, it was with the know­ledge that while ex­traordin­ary ef­forts should and would be used to res­cue cap­tured sol­diers, the U.S. would not trade cap­tives to se­cure one’s re­lease (even though it has happened be­fore and not in­fre­quently, but done more quietly and in­form­ally). When Dav­id read about the re­leas­ing of the five Taliban de­tain­ees, he was un­com­fort­able with the idea that these par­tic­u­larly bad act­ors would be al­lowed to go free — even if they were su­per­vised for a year by the gov­ern­ment of Qatar — be­cause they could con­tin­ue their war against the United States.

I don’t know the de­tails of Ber­g­dahl’s situ­ation. But Dav­id spent con­sid­er­able time away from the lar­ger and safer For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base War­ri­or (bunks, three square meals a day, toi­lets, and a daily in­com­ing rock­et or two) at a “Joint Se­cur­ity Sta­tion” — a re­mote out­post (sleep­ing on the ground, burn­ing waste, little pro­tec­tion oth­er than mud walls and sand­bags) with 30 oth­er Amer­ic­ans and a like num­ber of Afghan troops, where they ex­per­i­enced dir­ect con­tact with the in­sur­gents al­most daily dur­ing two months at the height of the fight­ing sea­son. Ob­vi­ously, he was un­sym­path­et­ic to any sol­dier who walked away from his unit in a com­bat situ­ation.

For us as par­ents, however, our sym­path­ies are with Ber­g­dahl’s fam­ily. Like mil­lions of oth­er fam­il­ies over the mil­len­nia, the ter­ror of hav­ing a son or daugh­ter serving in a com­bat unit dur­ing a very act­ive war is an ex­per­i­ence that we wouldn’t wish on any­one. On top of that, the thought of hav­ing your own son or daugh­ter cap­tured or lost is simply un­fathom­able — we can’t ima­gine what those par­ents went through. To us, the “leave no man be­hind” eth­os of the U.S. mil­it­ary is para­mount. However, even with those sym­path­ies, if the de­tails of Ber­g­dahl’s res­cue as they have been re­por­ted are true (a num­ber of U.S. sol­diers were killed and wounded dur­ing the search op­er­a­tion), and if he had, in fact, deser­ted his post, then that would be deeply troub­ling. If we lost a fam­ily mem­ber who was part of a search for a desert­er, I think my emo­tions might be very dif­fer­ent. For too many people, however, the nu­ances and de­tails are less im­port­ant than the more dog­mat­ic ap­proach.

The “where you stand de­pends on where you sit” max­im ap­plies equally to the just-an­nounced stand­ards to cut emis­sions. For people whose live­li­hood de­pends on coal, or who live in areas that are eco­nom­ic­ally de­pend­ent on coal (and, for that mat­ter, oth­er fossil fuels), the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed emis­sion stand­ards seem un­ten­able. This per­spect­ive is nearly ir­re­con­cil­able with that of those most con­cerned with en­vir­on­ment­al qual­ity.

While we have al­ways had par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ences, these dif­fer­ences are now in­creas­ingly bleed­ing over in­to lar­ger geo­graph­ic, so­cial, and cul­tur­al areas. Wheth­er it is en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion, gun laws, or count­less oth­er do­mest­ic-policy is­sues, people from small-town and rur­al Amer­ica see elites (e.g., city res­id­ents, lib­er­als, and Demo­crats) as im­pos­ing their val­ues and way of life on people they don’t even un­der­stand and with no sym­pathy for their per­spect­ive. Con­versely, those whose main con­cern is pro­tect­ing the Earth and the en­vir­on­ment see this as a battle for the plan­et’s fu­ture, and they don’t un­der­stand any­one who doesn’t share those pri­or­it­ies or con­cerns.

The no­tion that “where you stand de­pends on where you sit” seems to cut little ice in our in­creas­ingly ri­gid so­ci­ety, when tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ent points of view is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare.

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