September 17, 2013

GUEST ROOM: Remembering Prisoners of War

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By ROB CALLAHAN

On Friday, you might see a bunch of people in uniform run past you carrying a large, black flag. Don’t worry, that isn’t a group of Bucknell cheerleaders trying to psyche us out before Homecoming.  It is a group of ROTC cadets and midshipmen running in observance of the National Prisoners of War/Missing Action Recognition Day. POW/MIA Day was created by the veterans of the Vietnam War and the families of those service members who were taken prisoner or lost in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. While the Vietnam War is not a pleasant part of our national memory and many are loath to relive that era, POWs and MIAs are not solely limited to that conflict. There have been a number of servicemembers who have gone missing or who have been taken prisoner during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, is still held in captivity.

In the age of an all volunteer military, it could be easy to write off the risk of being taken prisoner as something that someone accepts when he or she enlists in the military. This is a valid point, but the military is employed by our elected officials and nominally on our behalf.  Therefore, we should think about what we owe to the increasingly small pool of people that are sent overseas wearing our nation’s flag on their right shoulder. The POW/MIA Flag is captioned with the phrase, “You are not forgotten,” as a promise to those that are missing or taken prisoner. Do we live up to that promise? Sergeant Bergdahl has been missing since 2009; in that time we have killed Osama Bin Laden, withdrawn from Iraq and begun preparing for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. When we reach the 2014 deadline for withdrawal, will the troop levels we report have an asterisk for an extra American or will Sergeant Bergdahl return home with the remainder of our forces?

That’s a question I assume many of us cannot answer, especially given the amount of time, blood and treasure a rescue would cost. However, it is one we need to consider before employing our armed forces. Even in limited operations, like the one in Libya, the threat of becoming a POW is present. An American F-15 crashed while enforcing the no fly zone above Libya in 2011, and the pilots were both safely recovered. However, this situation could play out very differently if, for example, limited strikes are pursued against Syria.  Fortunately, recent diplomatic developments have made this seem unlikely. Regardless, we should remember that the second and third order effects of a “limited engagement” or “boots on the ground” are hard to predict. In the midst of Homecoming Week, I ask that you take a second to remember Sergeant Bergdahl and, if your conversation turns to international affairs, to think about what happens if we can’t rescue the next pilots of a downed aircraft immediately. Do we go back for them? Or do we forget?

Rob Callahan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at rpc75@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.