“Homeland,” Showtime’s hit terrorism drama, is the go-to pop cultural touchstone for the still-unfolding story of Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s capture and upcoming return to the U.S.
And the similarities seem valid, at least superficially: “Homeland” told the story of sergeant Nicholas Brody, a newly-freed American prisoner of war “turned” and then convinced to commit an act of terror in the U.S. during his captivity by Al Qaeda in Iraq. Bergdahl apparently abandoned his unit in Afghanistan, and spent the next five years as a prisoner of the Taliban. Members of his unit have accused him of actively reaching out to the enemy.
The comparison is all over Twitter. And the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes that “Homeland” and “‘The Manchurian Candidate’ … offer valuable lessons to consider about Bergdahl and his return in the days and weeks to come.”
In fact, “Homeland” reveals almost nothing about Bergdahl’s capture and return. “Homeland” is about a conspiracy spanning continents, and ropes in everyone from the head of Al Qaeda to the director of the CIA. It takes place in a fictional Washington where any kind of overbaked intrigue seems possible. In constrast, the Bergdahl story is about one individual and his decisions, and “Homeland” isn’t useful in understanding either.
Even in its widely-lauded first season, “Homeland” was a work of conspiracism that invited viewers into a world that simply didn’t exist — one where terrorists fought the CIA on the streets of Washington, DC and the U.S. intelligence community is nearly omnipotent.
At its best, “Homeland” tried to use these conspiratorial flights of fancy as a pathway into deeper and more real issues, like the dilemmas of the U.S.’s War on Terror, or the moral and emotional harm that war inflicts on the people who fight it.
Even then, the show could be badly out of sync with reality — perhaps even perniciously so. “Brody is portrayed as this broken, hamstrung individual suffering from post traumatic stress and his captivity ordeal, and that leads him to betray his country. That’s an unhelpful stereotype,” says Robert Caruso, a former Navy cryptological technician and an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.
For Brody, the trauma of war translates into actual treason. But he’s not just a traitor. He’s a victim as well, spurred to terrorism partly because he witnesses the collateral damage of the U.S.’s targeted killing program. “The victim narrative is the lynchpin,” explains Alex Horton, a writer and Iraq War veteran, “because you don’t have the fundamental shift in world view or the moral problems without being subject to the dastardly ways of American foreign policy. You’re just a victim and a tool to be used.”
“Brody’s a helpful character for Americans to understand only in the context that there are deep moral complexities to war and combat,” says Horton. But the soldier-turned-potential-terrorist still represents a rehash of the vengeful, traumatized veteran stereotype of the post-Vietnam era, epitomized in films like “Taxi Driver” — a figure that war has left without personal agency or even much of a moral compass. “They have been victimized and have to take their revenge on someone or something,” says Horton.
Comparisons to “Homeland” gloss over the Bergdahl case’s complexities in a way that could be used to soft-pedal Bergdahl’s behaviour. “In examining individual prisoners of war, we should not lose sight of the conflicts that lead to their captivity,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in explaining Homeland’s applicability to the Bergdahl saga. At the same time, Bergdahl’s captivity is something of a unique case. It was the result of perhaps-illegal actions that left Bergdahl’s unit vulnerable to attack, far more than it was a typical or even necessary outcome of the Afghanistan conflict writ large.
Bergdahl’s case doesn’t jibe with “Homeland’s” simplistic and often-overblown messaging about war and its impact. It’s unclear why Bergdahl wandered off-base; after five years, it may be impossible to ascertain his mental state or decision-making process the night he was captured.
And whether he endangered his fellow soldiers, or violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Bergdahl might represent something more mundane and more challenging than “Homeland’s” worldview could allow for.
“The comparisons are easy surface-level pop culture connections, and I think that they obscure more than they explain,” says Horton.
On the central questions of Bergdahl’s actions, mental state, and decision-making process, “Homeland” and its narrow, even conspiratorial view of war and those who fight are far from illuminating.
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