When President Obama announced on Saturday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been freed from nearly five years of Taliban captivity, he thought he was delivering good news. That hope faded quickly. The logistics of the deal, including the administration’s elevation of pragmatism over precedent in negotiating Bergdahl’s release, the legal mechanism used to make it and the specific Guantanamo Bay prisoners given up in exchange for Bergdahl, have been the subject of criticism.
An even sharper discussion is taking place about Bergdahl’s character and his own role in his capture. Bergdahl was not captured in combat: He left his military outpost voluntarily in 2009. The most mild charge some are leveling against Bergdahl is that he is a deserter whose walkabout contributed to the deaths of soldiers searching for him, though it is not clear that the timeline of events justifies that accusation. At worst, Bergdahl is accused of active collaboration with the Taliban.
Both the people who cheer Bergdahl’s release and those who are skeptical of the deal and Bergdahl himself seem appalled by the positions that the other side is taking.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. American mass culture has a long tradition of skepticism of released prisoners of war. In stories such as “The Manchurian Candidate” and the Showtime series “Homeland,” which President Obama has named as one of his favorite television shows, prisoners of war pose risks to their home country. But these stories also raise larger questions about how these soldiers came to be that way, suggesting that our fear of prisoners of war is tangled up in many other anxieties.
In the excellent first season of “Homeland,” Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), long presumed dead, is recovered by accident during a U.S. raid in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. When Brody returns to the United States, the jingoistic vice president and the CIA officer who hopes to run the agency are eager to paint him as an unambiguous hero, even advancing him as a candidate for Congress.
The only person who is suspicious of Brody is CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). She is right that Brody was turned in captivity, embittered by a drone strike that killed a small boy with whom he had become close. This was not a simple whodunit. During its three seasons, “Homeland” was at its best when the show’s mystery — whether Brody would become a terrorist in deed — was tangled up in an exploration of the ways in which Brody’s captivity had rendered him a man who could never truly return home.
He may have lived and died an enemy of the United States, but “Homeland” argued that Brody was an enemy of his own country’s manufacture. Brody served his country, and when he went captive, his country gave up on finding him, much less on negotiating for his release. Left a prisoner of a terrorist, Brody had to do terrible things and adapt to his circumstances to survive. His government fired the drone missile that killed a child and convinced Brody that he needed to punish the politicians responsible. When he returned to the United States, politicians tried to turn Brody into one of them and to use him as a tool of the policies that he abhorred.
Brody was a queasy stab directly into our own conflicted feelings about a decade of the global war on terror. That Obama embraced the show seemed to be a sign of his moral sophistication.
“Homeland” is an adaptation of “Prisoners of War,” an Israeli series about soldiers whose return is secured 17 years after their initial capture. But its most important American antecedent is “The Manchurian Candidate,” the 1959 novel that was first adapted for film as a starring vehicle for Frank Sinatra in 1962.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is less subtle than “Homeland” about the minds of prisoners of war: The plot relies on the idea that the Soviet Union effectively brainwashed a U.S. platoon during their captivity in Manchuria. The goal of this brainwashing is to get the soldiers to tell the public that Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), previously a withdrawn and unlikable member of their unit, is a hero who saved all their lives, setting him up for a Medal of Honor and thus bolstering his stepfather’s political career.
Like “Homeland,” “The Manchurian Candidate” somewhat overestimates the capabilities of the United States’ enemy du jour, spinning a scenario where a dedicated Communist — Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury) — is in a position to swing a presidential election and embed herself in the U.S. government.
But the show and the movie also share the idea that the United States and its enemies have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. In “Homeland,” U.S. policy helps create new terrorist recruits. In “The Manchurian Candidate,” fears of communism bolster McCarthyite politicians, including Raymond Shaw’s stepfather and mother, which in turn creates an authoritarian environment that Communists can exploit.
Prisoners of war are dangerous and unpredictable in both of these stories. But they are ultimately tools of much more powerful parties in each conflict.
And what now for Bowe Bergdahl? The sharply probing coverage of his capture and recovery have made it unlikely that any political party will recruit him as a candidate or trot him out on a convention stage. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said today that there was no contradiction between a commitment to bringing Bergdahl or any other prisoner home and to an investigation of him when feasible. The risk of “Homeland” and “The Manchurian Candidate” is that they might encourage us to regard Bergdahl as another potential Nicholas Brody or Raymond Shaw, judging him a sleeper agent rather than remaining open to whatever such an investigation might reveal and whatever judicial process might follow.
But if “Homeland” and “The Manchurian Candidate” overstate the risk that prisoners of war will meet with a credulous welcome on their return, they still offer valuable lessons to consider about Bergdahl and his return in the days and weeks to come. We should examine the motivations of people of any political orientation who want to make Bergdahl a symbol. We should not expect that his return to the United States will be easy or conventional. And most of all, in examining individual prisoners of war, we should not lose sight of the conflicts that lead to their captivity.