Like Bowe Bergdahl, many 18th century captives didn’t go home again

librarywithcaptivesPer 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.

10 thoughts on “Like Bowe Bergdahl, many 18th century captives didn’t go home again

  1. There was a book out about ten years ago, “Legion of the Lost”, which was the memoir of a young, modern American who’d been in the FFL. It’s a pretty common ambition amongst those who see war as a romantic, manly prospect of testing their own toughness.


  2. I haven’t read enough captivity narratives lately to be sure, but isn’t one potential difference the fact that Bergdahl sought out the conditions under which he became a captive? (This strikes me as true whether or not he voluntarily walked off base; as you note, he volunteered for the military at least three times). Did 18th-century captives also put themselves in positions that made them more likely than average to be captured than the average colonist (who admittedly had already ventured into hazardous territory compared to the home country, although a good many members of extended families presumably weren’t the ones to make that decision; on the other hand, if there are genetic tendencies to adventure-seeking, they may have been more widespread than usual in the colonist population)? My (vague) memory is that the stories tend to be of the snatched-from-their-beds (or otherwise while going about everyday life) type, but that might be a narrative convention, and closer reading might yield an alternative narrative (e.g. they had voluntarily moved into a particularly hot spot in the larger colonial contact/conflict zone).

    I, too, am fascinated by the Bergdahl family story, but feeling a bit ambivalent about learning more, since it does seem like a private as much as a political one. However, if there’s a trial, I suspect that any details of that not related to national security will be public. It does seem possible that it’s a version of the modern tale with which college professors are all too familiar: parents a bit too invested in their children, and the children’s reaction. At least the Bergdahls have, as far as I can tell, been willing to stay mostly out of the media spotlight since their son returned. That suggests that they may have a genuine interest in their son’s welfare (as separate from an attachment to being the celebrity parents of a POW). Well, that, or they’re embarrassed by the public exposure of their family relationships as not what they’d made them out (perhaps to themselves as much as anyone) to be.

    Or, thinking back to earlier conversations here about Adam Lanza, I can think of another possibility: I wonder whether we’ve got another example here of parents doing the best they could with a child who was clearly unusual/potentially troubled from fairly early on (or, in other words, did the oddness arise from the home schooling, etc., or was the home schooling, etc., an attempt to deal with a child with an already-unusual personality?).


  3. Fascinating take on the situation, and much more grounded in reality than the “Traitor! Hero! Traitor! Hero! Traitor! Hero!” that is everyfuckenwhere else.


  4. I have nothing profound to add, as I haven’t followed the details of this story too closely. But I do wonder about the home schooling legacy. There was clearly a coherent world view that was promoted there, with clear morality etc. My hunch is that in some way that would have made it more difficult to deal with the disjuncture between the Taliban as enemy and the human beings he lived with for 5 years.

    But this must be so painful for his parents.


  5. I certainly don’t mean to cast aspersions on his home-school education–it seems like his parents are very humane and ethical people, and that they successfully instilled those values in him. Isn’t that what we aim at in a liberal arts education? (So that we can help our students avoid the Manichean/binary thinking inherent in the Traitor! Hero! kind of analysis.)

    I guess my point in calling his education “eccentric but very earnest” was to suggest that perhaps some exposure to some of the cynicism and corruption in mass educational institutions would have done him some good in terms of preparing him to deal with the military and his mission in Afghanistan. Maybe I should just have said that outright.

    Contingent Cassandra: when you look at the 17th and 18th C Anglo-American families who persist in borderlands communities even after their homes and their very families were disrupted by warfare and captivity, you have to wonder. I have in the past compared them to West Bank settlers–people who intentionally raise their families in harm’s way to make an ideological point. However, after having done some research on the relative public health of 18th cities vs. the borderlands, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that families living on the fringes of New England were more demographically successful, even if they lost a child or two to captivity, compared to their urban counterparts. The key factor here is the incredible danger of epidemic and endemic diseases, like smallpox and TB.

    I just finished reading Jill Lepore’s recent comparative biography of Benjamin Franklin and his sister Jane Franklin Mecom (sp?) Although she has something like 10 children, only a few live long enough to have children of their own, and only one ends up surviving her, Lepore hypothesizes, because of tuberculosis. She believes the whole family gets infected through the father’s exposure in Debtor’s Prison early in his young family’s life cycle. It’s really tragic.


  6. At some basic demographic/actuarial level, a large percentage of people in modern societies experience some degree of alienation from the parental hearth between late adolescence and early mid-adulthood, so (especially from the military’s position inside of the bureaucratic industrial complex), trying to figure out “the precise cause of the tension or when it began” is borderline hopeless. Disentangling this particular case study from a Rod Stewart song about why the kids had to run away from home to have their own kid and move to the next phase, or from the Patty Hearst-Tania-Patty Hearst boomerang trajectory, would be difficult. Not saying it isn’t interesting, it is. But life events pile on top of other life events, and disaggregating causality would run into a lot of background static problems early on.


  7. I agree. It’s interesting that the modern media assume that it’s not natural or normal for Bergdahl NOT to see or speak to his family. But that’s because they’re looking at Bergdahl as a modern son and not as a returned P.O.W. whose experiences might be compared to previous P.O.W.s in American history. This is likely due to the prominent roles his parents played in his return, highlighted in that Rose Garden announcement in May.

    This lack of contact with his family is maybe a little weird for a homeschooled person compared to your average alienated teen or young adult, given the emphasis that homeschooling puts on the parent-child relationship and on the family as the only legitimate source of information and moral guidance. But all of those adolescents and young adults who chose to remain in Canada and/or with their Native families were also homeschooled, and I discovered loads of reasons that they–and girls especially–might prefer life outside of New England: domestic violence; women’s property rights and fairer inheritance laws; religious conversion.

    I should have mentioned religious conversion in the body of the post. If Bergdahl converted, that might be a big reason why the U.S. government may not want to broadcast his story as a captivity narrative, as well as explain why he hasn’t been in touch with his parents. Now as in the eighteenth century, individuals who convert don’t conform to the script.


  8. Pingback: Whatever happened to Bowe Bergdahl? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  9. Pingback: Whatever happened to Bowe Bergdahl? | Historiann

  10. Pingback: The Captivity of Otto Warmbier - Public Seminar

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