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opinion | Martha Bayles

Bowe Bergdahl, ‘Homeland,’ and the kindness of strangers

Carey Sookocheff for the boston Globe

Following the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl this month after five years of captivity with the Taliban, there is intense curiosity about his state of mind. The doubts about his real intentions — what was he thinking when he walked off a base in Afghanistan? — resonate because of a nagging unease about whether or not Americans can still trust one another. This unease extends well beyond the Bergdahl case. It is reflected in the bitter debate over the use and abuse of government secrecy. And it is dramatized in hit TV series such as “Homeland” and “The Americans,” both of which portray the genial, helpful manner of everyday Americans as a mask covering evil intent.

In HBO’s “Homeland,” the evil intent is a terrorist plot pursued by a character named Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis), a Marine sergeant imprisoned and eventually recruited by a charismatic Al Qaeda leader. In “The Americans” on FX, it is deadly espionage conducted by Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys), KGB agents trained from youth to pose as an all-American couple in 1980s Washington.

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The most obvious parallel is between Bergdahl and Brody. But both TV series stir doubts about America’s ability to retain its greatest strength, which is not its military arsenal but something far less tangible: social trust. Ask young Americans what their country stands for, and the answer is likely to be diversity, openness, and tolerance — and above all, the freedom to experiment with different lifestyles and belief systems. But paradoxically, none of this would be possible without a high degree of social trust.

Recent polls have shown a decline in social trust, much of it related to the anonymity and impersonality of the Internet and social media. But social trust is deeply rooted in America — indeed, is a necessary part of the nation’s way of doing things. Americans are a restless people, longing to reconcile our prized individual freedom with our craving for lasting connection. So our social fabric is at once loose-weave and cohesive. It is loose-weave in the sense that we move around a lot, but it is also cohesive in the sense that we find it easy to trust and work with others outside our family, faith, and ethnic group.

Yet that trust is intangible — something we don’t notice until suddenly it’s not there any more. This is what must have happened to Sergeant Bergdahl. Until he abandoned his platoon in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in 2009, he was doing what a typical young American does — he was seeking to forge his own unique identity.

Home-schooled by conservative Christian parents in the lily-white hamlet of Hailey, Idaho, Bergdahl pursued marksmanship, fencing, ballet, Tarot cards, and Buddhism. He fantasized about joining the French Foreign Legion, becoming a missionary in Uganda, and forming a special-ops team with his father to take out mass killers in Darfur and Sudan. Then he joined the Army, only to become disillusioned with his poorly disciplined unit and the murky reasons for its deployment in a tiny outpost near the Pakistan border.

Even as Bergdahl’s dreams of military glory were fading, he imagined a new persona. Alienated from fellow soldiers, who preferred video games to learning about their surroundings, he studied Pashto and tried to make friends with Afghan police officers attached to his unit. Before leaving for this tour of duty, Bergdahl had told a friend, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.” He made a plan to do just that.

According to journalist Michael Hastings — the source of most of the details we know about Bergdahl’s life — Bergdahl asked his team leader which equipment could not be taken off base. The reply was, “Your rifle and night-vision goggles.” So when Bergdahl slipped across the perimeter, the only things he carried were a canteen, a knife, a camera, a diary — and an open, friendly attitude toward strangers that could hardly have been more out of place. Inside that perimeter he had been free, despite danger and hardship, to fantasize about the next stage in his quest for identity. Outside, he would encounter a world where identity is brutally imposed, like a hood over a hostage’s head.

Now that Bergdahl is, if not home, then back “inside the wire,” a lot is riding on whether he can smoothly re-enter the American mainstream. At the moment, he cannot hear the pundits and talking heads screaming about whether he is a victim, a deserter, a hero, or a mental case. And that’s just as well, because the last thing this young man needs is another round of self-transformation. His best hope is to find a way to rebuild the fragile bonds of trust that are his birthright as an American. And if he can do that, then there may be hope for all of us.

Martha Bayles, who teaches humanities at Boston College, is the author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.”
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