What’s Bergdahl worth? Everything.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is finally back on U.S. soil, having landed on Friday. Five Taliban members enjoy newfound, if curtailed, freedom in Qatar. Time magazine features Bergdahl on the cover, and, speaking for many, ask “Is He Worth it?”
It’s a question that challenges the seminal premise of all war narratives. The “worth” of an individual soldier is not the issue. Bringing back those who fight for you, alive or dead, has been a central understanding of the rules of war for millennia — and is the basis for many of the most powerful scenes in literature.
Consider The Iliad, Homer’s ur-war narrative, which remains one of the most terrifyingly real depictions of the politics of war. Complicated prisoner exchanges open and close this epic tale of the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.
The Greek hero Achilles’ rage over a controversial prisoner exchange launches the narrative and the Trojan King Priam’s heart-rending appeal for the return of a fallen soldier ends it. Between these bookends the action roils with bloody battle scenes and snarling internal politics among both the Greek and the Trojan leaders.
The first word of The Iliad — “Rage” — describes Achilles’ response to the Greek leader Agamemnon’s complicated decision to release a prisoner of war to the Trojans. When a plague ravages the Greek camp, Achilles urges Agamemnon to appease the god Apollo by returning Chryseis, the daughter of the god’s priest, to Troy.
Furious that Achilles has trapped him into the deal, Agamemnon flexes his political muscles, and seizes Briseis, a beautiful princess whom Achilles’ had taken as a spoil of war.
The ensuing feud between Agamemnon and Achilles has nothing to do with Briseis or her individual merits. Rather, she becomes the abstracted battlefield of their political power struggle.
This turns into one of the epic’s key narrative arcs, as Achilles sits sulking in his tent, choosing not to fight — and not let his army fight — for the Greeks. Finally, provoked by the death of his friend Patroclus at the hands of Hector, the son of Priam, Achilles picks up his weapons and re-enters the fray.
In his bloody return to the battlefield, Achilles slays Hector, the celebrated hero of Troy. To flaunt this victory and drive home the Trojans’ humiliation, Achilles ties Hector’s body to his chariot and drags it through the dirt and dust for days, allowing all the chance to further defile the body.
Priam, who deeply mourns his son’s death, is tortured by what he sees and hears. The king steals out of the besieged city at night, and finds his way to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body. In that meeting, the two men — the fiercest of enemies — find common ground in recognizing the horrifying losses on both sides
“And overpowered by memory,” Homer sings, “both men gave way to grief.”
This scene—and every return of a soldier– also anticipates an end to a war. Two sides have begun a dialogue and created the possibility of a future peace or resolution. For a moment in the narrative, all sides have heroes.
With the return of Hector’s body, Achilles and Priam play out one of the basic rules of combat: “Leave no soldier behind.” This assumption weaves its way through every work of literature that deals with war, from The Iliad to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Today, however, the political critics of Bergdahl’s return are questioning the interiority of the soldier himself — looking beyond his uniform and trying to fathom his thoughts. Was he sufficiently patriotic? Did he question the war?
These issues, frankly, are irrelevant. In war narratives from The Iliad to Henry V to The Red Badge of Courage to The Deer Hunter, the protagonists — no, the heroes — question the war, pout in their tents refusing to go to battle, feel fear of and sympathy for their enemies and question their own courage. The ultimate hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus, goes so far as to disguise himself as a shepherd and flee to the outskirts of his home town in order not to be drafted.
In one of the most emotionally charged sequences of Shakespeare’s Henry V the new king disguises himself on the eve of battle and mingles among his soldiers. The soldiers express fear and distrust. They question their young king’s ability to lead them to victory. Henry recognizes that these are understandable emotions for men about to face death the next morning.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s novel about the Civil War also presents soldiers in doubt. The young hero Private Henry Fleming flees during battle. He spends the rest of the novel coming to terms with his cowardice, and seeking a way to redeem himself.
The narrative of heroism is that the soldier performs his or her duty in spite of personal doubts and fears. Let’s face it, only a certified nut-case, like Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse, Now “loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”
The arguments now being made about the personal aspects of Bergdahl’s psychology — let alone about his father’s beard — are not about the international aspects of the rules of war, nor about military strategy. Rather, the circumstances are again similar to Homer’s tale.
The Illiad’s major conflicts have more to do with the political rivalry between Agamemnon and Achilles than the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. In much the same manner, the criticisms about Bergdahl’s recovery may have more to do with Republican attacks on Obama, and Congress’ huff at not having been consulted and less about the international dynamics of trading five Taliban prisoners for one U.S. soldier.
Captives of war are pawns of opposing political forces. They are traded not on the basis of their individual merits but on the basis of power dynamics. In both the fictional narrative of the The Iliad and, sadly, the real case of Bergdahl, the captives are caught in the messiness of politics.
PHOTO (TOP): Triumphant Achilles: Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Franz Matsch fresco on the upper level of the main hall of the Achilleion at Corfu, Greece. WIKIPEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Brad Pitt as Achilles in “Troy.” REUTERS/Courtesy Warner Bros.
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens WIKIPEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Priam Asking Achilles to Return Hector’s Body WIKIPEDIA/Commons
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Army and received by Reuters on May 31, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters