The mystery and controversy surrounding U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl only deepened Wednesday with the release of a Taliban video documenting his transfer into American hands.
Gonzaga University anthropologist David B. Givens says the widely disseminated video, which shows a wan-looking Bergdahl being marched by his captors to three Special Forces soldiers and an Army helicopter, reveals a prisoner reluctant to part from his captors.
“Based purely on the nonverbal cues captured in this Taliban video, the American and his Afghan handler behaved in a manner that would be consistent with a sad farewell or a grieving goodbye,” Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., told The Daily Beast. “They shared friendly, direct eye contact in the manner of allies rather than enemies.”
There is, of course, a lengthy wartime tradition involving video or (more historically) film of captors and their captives; the footage frequently serves the captors as a propaganda vehicle for worldwide and home consumption, but in rare instances the captives manage to subvert the aims of their tormentors.
In perhaps the most famous case—from the Vietnam era—Navy Commander (later admiral and U.S. senator) Jeremiah Denton was shot down in his A-6A Intruder jet over North Vietnam and taken prisoner of war in July 1965. The following year, he was forced by his captors to participate in a televised press conference, and while submitting to questions from the enemy, he blinked his eyes in Morse Code to spell out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” It was the first confirmation to Navy Intelligence that American service members were being abused by the North Vietnamese—and the government in Hanoi unknowingly snatched a propaganda defeat from the jaws of supposed victory.
In another example of hostages attempting to manipulate images to the propaganda detriment of their captors, the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo—who were captured in January 1968 by the North Koreans and held for 11 months—took advantage of their hosts’ ignorance of American culture by raising their middle fingers in group photographs, telling their hosts that it was a “Hawaiian good luck” gesture.
Although off-camera, Pueblo Commander Lloyd Bucher—who was subjected to mock executions as a form of psychological torture—finally admitted to the erroneous claim of entering North Korean waters to spy, but subverted his unknowing captors by writing out ridiculous confessions, such as swearing “on the sacred honor of the Great Speckled Bird,” and, stating that “neither the frequency nor the distances of these transgressions into the territorial waters of this sovereign peace-loving nation matter because penetration however slight is sufficient to complete the act.” The last nine words, as his superiors back home would know, was the definition of rape in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Bergdahl, who appeared in a previous video pleading for the United States to rescue him, seems to have demonstrated no such pluck. Meanwhile, this latest video would seem to be more bad news for the Obama White House, which has been absorbing bipartisan anger in Washington, not only because at least six U.S. soldiers were killed in the search for their errant comrade, but also because of the price of Bergdahl’s freedom.
In exchange for the return of the 28-year-old Bergdahl, who reportedly deserted his post in 2009 and went AWOL into the Afghan wilderness before being captured by the enemy, President Obama released five Taliban combatants from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and failed to consult key members of Congress before striking the deal to let the terrorists fly off to Qatar.
The acrimony was hardly defused this past weekend when the president’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said on ABC News’s This Week program that Bergdahl had “served the United States with honor and distinction”—an assertion that is contradicted by the claims of various members of his platoon. Ironically, the notoriously repressive Taliban has been more forthcoming about Bergdahl’s situation than the Pentagon—this new video being a case in point.
“Based on his depressed lip corners, puckered brows, and tearing eyes, along with the forward bowing motions of his head, the American appeared to be softly crying,” Givens continued in an email. “The Afghan man seemed to console the American with friendly, palm-up (supinated) hand gestures, and then gently patted the American several times, reassuringly, on the shoulder, as if to wish him well.”