• AP Photos
  • The deal with the Taliban to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl isn’t exactly like swapping baseball players at the trade deadline.

We can safely say Brock for Broglio 50 years ago this month was a bad trade, and we could say that even before the ’64 season ended with Lou Brock and the Cardinals winning the World Series while the Cubs and Ernie Broglio finished ten games under .500. But war is more complicated than baseball.

Nineteen sixty-four was also the year the Tonkin Gulf Resolution made it official that the U.S. was at war in Vietnam. By 1973 that war had exhausted and divided America in a way Iraq and Afghanistan can’t approximate, and President Nixon made a trade not easily judged even today. The North Vietnamese had captured hundreds of our soldiers and flyers. Americans wanted them back home. The trade: the enemy released its POWs and America quit the war.

Yes, the idea—the fig leaf—was that South Vietnam would fight on alone against the North and we would provide material support. But most Americans doubted that South Vietnam could keep that up for long and most didn’t care if it couldn’t. Two years later South Vietnam was overrun and the war was over.

If even today you’d prefer endless war and occupation in Indochina to that result, it was a bad trade. Otherwise, you probably have no trouble living with it. Whichever you think, you’ll probably agree that by comparison Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban kingpins is like so many bubble gum cards swapped on a grade school playground.

“I’m inclined to side . . . with critics of the deal,” wrote the Tribune‘s Eric Zorn. “Yes, nearly every nation that’s ever been at war has engaged in prisoner swaps, but five top members of the Taliban for one American soldier who was evidently in the process of deserting seems like a bad trade.”

Being out of town and caught up in the hubbub of a family wedding, I initially enjoyed the freedom of giving this trade no thought whatsoever. By Tuesday, when I finally put my mind to it, there was nothing more to say about the trade itself and instead I could judge the rush to judgment.

Here’s my take on that: Pundits often go wrong by believing that the choice before us is to turn our thumbs up or turn them down. Deal with Taliban good or deal with Taliban bad. Global warming yes or global warming no.

But frequently the real choice is one we don’t even see. It’s between imposing binary appraisal on the matter at hand and resisting the impulse because the matter at hand is too complicated for that.

For instance, NBC interviewed Edward Snowden and asked the public to vote its reactions—”as if it were voting on Kim Kardashian’s wedding dress,” as Sun-Times columnist Phil Kadner observes Tuesday.

Kadner’s column begins, “Edward Snowden: Patriot or Traitor? Text us your answer.”

But Kadner knows it’s not that simple. He concludes: “In reality, we don’t know enough about this character Snowden to decide if he’s a hero or a villain, a patriot or a traitor. What we do know is that he lifted a veil on a secret government intelligence program that violates the very principles on which this nation was founded.”

My view—which Kadner may share—is not that we don’t know enough about Snowden to answer the question. It’s that the question is too simple to be answerable. Snowden isn’t either/or. The quest to pigeonhole Snowden is not a quest to understand him.