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.