Per my comparison of recently freed Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl to Anglo-American captives of the eighteenth century, the Wall Street Journal reports that so far, “Sgt. Bergdahl has refused to see his parents or speak to them on the phone, the official said. The decision by Sgt. Bergdahl, who returned to regular duty on Monday, suggests a deeper estrangement between the soldier and his parents than the military understood when he was released. Still, officials said, they don’t know the precise cause of the tension or when it began.”
Slate comments that “the news that Bergdahl has refused to speak to his parents is an unexpected plot twist in a story already full of hairpin turns.” Actually, no. The eighteenth-century evidence suggests that Anglo-Americans who were adolescents or young adults and who were adopted by new Native or French families frequently chose to remain with their new families rather than return home again. (I wrote about these captives, especially the girls and women who didn’t return, in chapter four of Abraham in Arms.)
Many captives became very attached to their new families and caregivers. In the case I cited last month in my analysis, Sylvanus Johnson–a child captive from age six to eleven–forgot how to speak English, forgot his own parents, and for the rest of his life allegedly “so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization, that he often expressed regret at having been ransomed. He always maintained, and no arguments could convince him to the contrary, that the Indians were a far more moral race than the whites.”
Granted, Bergdahl was not a child captive, but neither does the reporting on him describe a very mature or fully developed adult personality. He seems to have had the goal of becoming a twenty-first century American Laurence of Arabia, at least so far as he could develop the fantasy based on reading Beetle Bailey and viewings of Man vs. Wild. As Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone two years ago, he had an eccentric but very earnest home school education, and first attempted to join the French Foreign Legion. (Surely this makes him the first American since before the Vietnam War to attempt this?) According to Hastings,
At 20, Bowe went even farther afield in search of the kind of boy’s adventure that had mesmerized him for years: He decided to join the French Foreign Legion, the infantry force made up of foreigners who want “to start a new life,” as the legion’s recruiting website puts it. He traveled to Paris and started to learn French, but his application was rejected. “He was absolutely devastated when the French Foreign Legion didn’t take him,” Bob says. “They just didn’t want an American home-schooled in Idaho. They just said no way.” Bowe pored over a survival and combat handbook written by a former member of the British special forces, and he gravitated toward the TV show Man vs. Wild, hosted by another legendary British soldier. “This became his role model,” his father says. “He is Bear Grylls in his own mind.”
(Emphasis in the above paragraph is mine.)
Bergdahl was then dismissed in 2006 from his first attempt at age 20 to join the military from Coast Guard training, a fact the Army knew when they permitted him to enlist in 2008 at at age 22. He walked away from his unit then at age 23 in June of 2009. As Hastings wrote presciently in 2012, “[Bergdahl's] own tour of duty in Afghanistan mirrored the larger American experience in the war – marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity. And it is with Bowe that the war will likely come to an end.”
Was Bergdahl kept in a cage and treated like an animal, or was he adopted into an Afghan family? Was he being starved, or were his apparent medical problems organic rather than the result of intentional neglect or abuse? The conditions of his captivity will likely help explain his current diffidence towards the family that birthed and raised him. I can’t wait to read more about this case. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it all before, but I need to learn more in order to develop my comparative perspective on captivity.