The Normandy Spirit

By John Parisella on June 27, 2014

Like so many in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe, I was moved by the commemorative events surrounding the Normandy landing that took place 70 years ago on June 6, 1944. It was a moment to remember the ultimate sacrifice of what journalist Tom Brokaw labeled “the Greatest Generation,” who struggled in the defense of freedom and the elimination of Nazi barbarism. We owe so much to those who fought and to the few veterans remaining. It was a fitting memorial.

In stark contrast to the events surrounding the Normandy landing, a growing controversy in a prisoner-of-war swap soon became the news of the day.  Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. combatant who was held captive for five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan, was part of a deal that released five Taliban terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2001.

While the news was greeted with elation in the early hours of its announcement, allegations soon began surfacing that Bergdahl may have actually been captured following a planned desertion. Some of his troop members, who went searching for him and allegedly suffered casualties, took to the airwaves criticizing the deal made by the Obama Administration and brokered by the Qatar government.

Members of both parties of Congress criticized President Obama for not respecting the law by giving Congress a 30 day notice of such an action.  The Republicans went further and actually questioned the deal on its merits, arguing that the U.S. government may have given too much away by releasing five dangerous terrorists.  The Obama administration appeared to overplay the deal for media purposes.  Finally, growing doubts about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s departure from his base and subsequent capture by the Taliban quickly transformed a positive event into a contentious one, gleefully exploited by adversaries of the Obama administration.

In one week, we seemed to go from one extreme to another—celebrating a victory for freedom and democracy, and then questioning the wisdom of freeing a citizen of one of these democracies without regard to due process.  Wasn’t Normandy all about freedom, including the rights of citizens, the celebration of citizenship within a democracy, and the commitment to due process? A citizen who is in harm’s way merits the full application of citizenship. Specifically, his country and his government have an obligation to protect an individual who is on the battlefield incurring all the associated risks, and must do all in its power to retrieve this citizen if he or she is in the hands of the enemy or suffers a casualty.

This is what the Obama administration did in Bergdahl’s case.  True democracies are expected to do that.

It is too early to speculate about Bergdahl’s actions or motives at the time of his capture, and whether the allegations regarding a possible desertion are true.  He was known to wander off base occasionally, and when he was captured, he had just left his base for about 30 minutes.  However, in democracies, you are innocent until proven guilty.  And there is such a thing as due process in determining guilt or innocence.

That was what the allies fought for and died for at Normandy.  It would be sad that the cause which we honored on June 6 and for which the Greatest Generation sacrificed so much would be denied to a citizen in one of the winning democracies.  If so, it would be completely contrary to the Normandy spirit.

John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.


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