I am into my summer routine, which means I drive to a weekend house, and as I do so, I listen to a book on tape. For the moment, it’s Laura Hillenbrand’s riveting “Unbroken,” the story of Louis Zamperini’s ordeal during World War II. He was a bombardier, and after his plane went down in the Pacific, he spent 47 days on a decaying raft, fighting off sharks with his fists, and then survived three years of inhumane imprisonment by the Japanese. His and the lives of other POWs were saved by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cruelty had met its match.
As the story of Zamperini, a former Olympic runner and astonishing athlete, unfolded over a weekend of driving for errands or just sitting in the driveway transfixed, I was also paying attention to the saga of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban from June 2009 until just last week. Aside from captivity, the two stories are different — and so may be the America they represent.
I need to say some things upfront: President Obama was right to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay. The war is winding down and it would have been unconscionable to leave a POW behind. Bergdahl may not have been captured in battle, but he was always — and remains — an American. If he wanted to come home, we had an obligation to make it happen.
Still, Bergdahl was not your average POW. From many accounts, it seemed he had had enough of the war, and simply wandered away from his unit — maybe not desertion but hardly the “honor and distinction” of Susan Rice’s characterization. Whatever his motives, whatever his state of mind — he seems awfully confused — he was no hero and did not, by proxy, deserve that Rose Garden ceremony accorded his parents. The president had a solemn obligation to the soldiers who did not leave their posts. He squandered it.
When Zamperini finally came home, a joyous nation exuberantly welcomed him. He was a hero — a genuine hero — and a one-time famous athlete. He became famous once again, this time for his indomitability. But he was a damaged man, so brutalized by his prison guards that at night he had horrible hallucinations and nightmares. He could not shake the memory of a prison guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe who had so determinedly tortured him, beating him routinely for, as he later reported, the sheer psycho-sexual pleasure of it.
For a time, Zamperini appeared serene. He toured the country as a hero. He told a bracing story of unit cohesion, of a wonderful community of fallen warriors, of men whose pride kept them alive. When at last liberation came, a lone American torpedo bomber dropped a candy bar and a pack of cigarettes (with one cigarette missing) on the POW camp: 700 men shared the candy bar, touching a finger to it and then licking the smudge, Hillenbrand wrote. An officer “had the men form 19 circles, each of which received one cigarette. Each man got one delectable puff.”
The liberation of Bergdahl produced no such sense of unity. Republicans sharpened their knives for yet another go at Obama. They fretted over the (remote) threat posed by the freed Taliban. They accused Obama of duplicity for not keeping Congress informed. They joyously fell on Rice for her mischaracterization — and they linked Bergdahl with Benghazi, a politically potent combo of B’s designed to set the simple mind reeling.
The columnist David Brooks praised Obama for “his sense of responsibility for a fellow countryman.” Yes — and it was undoubtedly what Obama intended. But Brooks himself acknowledges that the “Oprah-esque photo-op” in the Rose Garden was a mistake. I would be harsher. It was both unnecessary and — as long as the details of how Bergdahl came to be captured were uncertain — counterproductive. Not everything has to be a PR event.
The two former POWs — Zamperini and Bergdahl — personify the America of their times. One fought a good war. The other a muddled one. One showed exemplary loyalty to his comrades, the other apparently did not. One came back to a united nation, the other to partisan bickering so rancorous that politicians who once favored a prisoner exchange denounced the deal. Times had changed, of course. But so, too, it seems have men. Zamperini’s exuberant smile has morphed into the squinting visage of Bergdahl. It is the face of a confused and divided country.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.