Bowe Bergdahl, seen here in a video screenshot from Dec. 2010, was the only American soldier being held prisoner in Afghanistan before being freed on May 31. (Uncredited / InetelCenter via AP)
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A former naval intelligence officer turned history professor who has written several books on prisoners of war called Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl an “anomaly” — because of the unique nature of his captivity and the fact that he became a prisoner in the first place.
“The taking of prisoners has always had a benefit — we treat your guys OK, we hope that you treat our guys OK,” said Robert Doyle, history professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “But they only had one guy ... that dynamic is over.”
More than 100,000 U.S. service members were prisoners of war during World War II, according to the Andersonville National Historic Site, home to the legendary Civil War prison and now host to the National Prisoner of War Museum. About 7,100 were classified as POWs during the Korean War, a number that dropped below 1,000 for Vietnam.
In those instances, the notion of a 5-for-1 exchange like the one that freed Bergdahl wouldn’t have been considered, but new realities of war, Doyle said, lead to new paths.
“You have to come up with something innovative,” said Doyle, who served as a naval intelligence liaison in Vietnam. “That’s exactly what the present administration did.
“We’re still dealing with what would be perceived as a new paradigm, which is making an actual deal. But we made spy swaps. This is not really a new paradigm, it’s only new because it’s military.”
In one instance, however, Bergdahl’s case may have reverted to pre-Vietnam POW history: The controversy surrounding his capture could put him in a defensive situation felt by prisoners more than 150 years ago.
“Historical precedent in that prior to the post-Vietnam era, in the broad, prisoners of war were seen as failures,” said Eric Leonard, acting superintendent at the Andersonville site, which preserves POW history on the Georgia site that held nearly 45,000 Union prisoners.
“These guys who were held at Andersonville, when they told their stories, they spend a lot of time talking about their exact circumstances of their capture,” he said — attempting to explain the hopelessness of their particular situation.
It’s a stigma broken by returning Vietnam POWs, whose bravery while in captivity has been chronicled in history books, biographies and cinema.
Also part of that story was the communication network and social structure created by U.S. prisoners — benefits Bergdahl didn’t have in his five years under Taliban control — and the ability of POWs to yield the spotlight to others in similar circumstances.
“Whether he likes it or not, he’s going to be a national figure for awhile,” Doyle said of Bergdahl, whom he called “an anomaly to the whole prisoner-of-war scene.”
Doyle would not directly address criticism and accusations being leveled at Bergdahl from Facebook groups and others, saying “we need to let the [Army] intelligence folks do what they are trained to do. Let him know that we care about him. Go the positive route; the negative stuff will come up in his own debrief.”
Leonard took a similar approach.
“There’s almost nothing simple about the prisoner-of-war experience,” he said. “His story isn’t over yet. We don’t know how it’s going to end.”