The Difference Between Rescue and Ransom


One of the most extraordinary and costly rescues in American history occurred in April 1972, after Iceal “Gene” Hambleton’s electronics-warfare plane (call sign “Bat 21”) was shot down at the onset of the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter offensive. When he had been stuck behind enemy lines for more than a week, the Air Force launched an all-out effort to rescue him, at that time the largest rescue operation in USAF history.

It was costly. Eleven soldiers and airmen died, and the rescue impaired our overall military operations in response to the NVA offensive.

Still, we did not leave Hambleton behind. The cost was terrible, but we did not break faith with a man in uniform, trapped and alone in enemy territory. Days later, the rescue effort finally succeeded, as Navy and South Vietnamese SEALs safely retrieved him after a ground escape that is now the stuff of cinematic legend.

I couldn’t help but think of this costly rescue when I read reports of the lives lost searching for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Those lives were not sacrificed in vain. Men died fulfilling a sacred obligation to fellow soldiers, an obligation that gives every man and woman in uniform comfort that they will never be alone, never be abandoned, even if they make terrible mistakes.

But Sergeant Bergdahl — ultimately — was not rescued. He was ransomed. And the difference between rescue and ransom is the difference between victory and defeat.

This distinction seems lost on some defenders of the Bergdahl deal. Harry Reid tweeted that “we rescue our soldiers first and ask questions later.”

Writing in The New Republic, Brian Beutler says “abandonment” is the “inescapable conclusion” of conservative critiques of the ransom deal.

He goes on:

But if the deal was bad, and was bad largely on account of Bergdahl’s unworthiness of sacrifice, then this is an endorsement of the idea that he should be in Taliban custody today, perhaps traded down the line for something less valuable than five Guantanamo detainees who probably would’ve had to be released anyhow . . . But to the extent that they’ve avoided the second half of the cost/benefit issue, it’s by arguing that Obama would’ve been on firmer ground ordering a rescue operation, and avoiding tradeoffs altogether. Out of the other side of their mouths, though, they effuse outrage over the fact that U.S. troops died trying unsuccessfully to rescue this same deserter.

But the assertion that conservatives are speaking out of the “other side of their mouths” misses the critical reality of successful military rescues. A successful rescue typically results in the death or capture of enemy soldiers, costs the enemy its valued asset — in this case an American prisoner — and discourages hostage-taking by raising the price for no return.

Books by David French: Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War and A Season for Justice: Defending the Rights of the Christian Home, Church, and School.

David French is a Senior Counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a former Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, and a past president of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education. He has taught at Cornell Law School and served as a commercial litigation partner in the firm of Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald. His legal practice is concentrated on constitutional law and the international law of armed conflict, and he is licensed to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. David is the author of multiple books.

Used with the permission of The American Center for Law and Justice.