What’s Bergdahl worth? Everything.

June 17, 2014

Achilles triumphe _in_Corfu_Achilleion

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.

Brad-Pitt-in-Troy-2004-Movie-Image -- in armorThe 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.

achilles Slays_HectorThis 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.

priam & achillesWith 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.

Undated image from video footage taken from a Taliban-affiliated website shows a man who says he the US soldier captured by the Taliban in late JuneThe 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


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PFC Berdahl is a deserter plain and simple.
This article doesn’t even mention it. Just SPIN!

It is really two separate issues. First he is a deserter and should have been the last on the list to retrieve and been prosecuted immediately upon return.

Second is the trade. It was a very bad deal if all we actually traded was a deserter for five leaders. But I doubt that is the case. President Obama visited Afghanistan just a week or two prior to his release to “visit the troops” with no other official agenda. Really? With a pending election and contract pending? I think PFC Berdahl was just a throw in on the major deal.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Also, the author does a great disservice to the great literary pieces and hero’s by discussing this deserter in same article with them.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I guess it’s hard to make a movie without a hero ayy Ms. Evangeline Morphos?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Deserters, when returned in prisoner exchanges, were traditionally subject to Court Martial, put in prison, hung, shot, or all of the above. IMHO his case should be reviewed in a military court, and let justice serve.

Posted by bluewater23000 | Report as abusive

As soon as I saw she was a Columbia U Professor, I knew it would be anti american spin supporting Obama. or more commonly known as Leftist delusional arguments in tearing down America because in their United States money is no object with govt. spending and we have no enemies … except the tea party.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

Dearest conservative idiots, Obama was elected as the president of our DEMOCRACY, which is not relevant to Bergdahls release. In this country we bring our troops home. If they are found guilty of war crimes, or desertion in a court of law let them suffer the consequences. If you prefer to execute your judgement before his trial denounce your citizenship and move your ass to the middle east or anywhere else the rule of law does not exist.

Posted by md4ca | Report as abusive

TMC and VultureTX

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

Abraham Lincoln

Posted by MJJ1201 | Report as abusive

Give me a smart article from a Columbia U professor any day over people drunk on cool-aide from the right-wing media.

Take Fox News. Every day they fill their “news” with opinion in a constant attack mode, 100 % partisan. For example, today their article on “Obama aims to create world’s largest ocean preserve” has attacks calling Obama an imperial president who is trying to shut down the oceans. Of course their is no counterbalance in these kinds of articles. For example, where is the voice of an expert who knows that over 95% of large fish are gone and that reserves or other measures are necessary? Cool-Aid plus ignorant people is a bad combo.

Posted by yakinsea | Report as abusive

No WMD in Iraq and no Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
To me, the essential question is: who sent these American kids like Bergdahl there, and what they were dying and suffering for? halliburtons?..

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

when you defend leftist profs of Columbia U (famous for its anti zionist agenda) you show yourself a fool. And the wife and coauthor of Brinkley who is to the left of FDR politically.

/and know you can’t even deny outing yourself.
//sucks to be you.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

TO @md4ca and MJJ1201, I really don’t care what you think of me and I have more often than not supported President Obama. Look at my comment history and you’ll see I’m an independent voter (if you can, comment have been real buggy recently).
I agree that we don’t leave anyone behind when at all possible. Pfc Bergdahl should have been retrieved but last on the list as he was clearly a deserter. The UCMJ is very clear on the matter. Obviously you two have never severed in combat before. I have. He should have been prosecuted immediately upon return. Politics should not trump the UCMJ or our military will cease to be one of the best in the world.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I also believe this author is just testing the waters to see what kind of movie can be made. With several million veterans out there, she better not try and make a hero out this deserter.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Yep Bergdahl is worth everything. The circumstances of his leave don’t matter anymore, he has paid a far too heavy price already. There is paramount evidence that NO deaths are linked to him despite what a few loose unintelligent screws in his platoon keep muttering. The boy deserves a pay for being hired when the military knew he was mentally unstable already. The army needs to be investigated, not Mr. Bergdahl. It’s also nice to hear that a few movies are being made about Bergdahl, hopefully he’ll receive some well deserved royalties from those.

Posted by Sayuri00 | Report as abusive