Brian K. Feltman: Blurred Lines: Prisoners of War, Deserters, and Bowe Bergdahl

feltman_stigmaWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Brian K. Feltman, author of The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond. Approximately 9 million soldiers fell into enemy hands from 1914 to 1918, but historians have only recently begun to recognize the prisoner of war’s significance to the history of the Great War. Examining the experiences of the approximately 130,000 German prisoners held in the United Kingdom during World War I, historian Feltman brings wartime captivity back into focus.

In today’s post, Feltman examines the controversial case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in the context of historical attitudes toward prisoners of war.


On May 31, 2014, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released by the Taliban after nearly five years in captivity. Bergdahl is the only American soldier believed to have spent time as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and his release was greeted with a chorus of cheers from the American public. Although some hailed Bergdahl as a hero, others within the military community quickly alleged that he had not been taken prisoner and had instead deserted his post.

Accusations of desertion prompted many of Bergdahl’s supporters to reconsider their positions and left several congressmen scrambling to delete early tweets that praised his service. While many Americans may be surprised by the heated controversy surrounding Bergdahl’s capture, the Bergdahl affair is only the most recent example of the hazy line separating deserters and prisoners of war.

In many cultures throughout history, surrendering on the field of battle and becoming a prisoner of war has carried a stigma. Battle cries such as “victory or death” or “no retreat, no surrender” serve as proof of the military’s exaltation of soldiers who refuse to accept defeat, even at the cost of their own lives. Soldiers who found themselves in enemy hands have often wrestled with feelings of shame and inadequacy for falling short of these romanticized standards. However, even if prisoners of war could become stigmatized, they faced no punishment or official backlash as long as they behaved with honor in captivity. Desertion to the enemy, on the other hand, is an act of treason that carries severe penalties and ostracism.

In The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond, I show that during the Great War (1914-1918), the German army attempted to blur the lines between prisoners of war and deserters as a means of encouraging soldiers to fight to the end rather than surrender to the enemy in hopeless conditions. An upsurge in surrenders made it difficult for the German army to continue the fight in the Great War’s final year. When thousands of German soldiers surrendered to the enemy, German commanders routinely spoke in terms that made it difficult to discern between prisoners of war and deserters. Due to the conflation of surrender and desertion, former prisoners of war were sometimes viewed with suspicion, and they took great pains to defend themselves against slander. As former prisoners came to realize, the stigma of surrender did not die on the battlefields of the Great War.

Popular attitudes towards prisoners shifted considerably in the decades following the conclusion of the Second World War. Today, the public largely honors the sacrifices made by prisoners of war, but as recently as 2008, presidential candidate John McCain, who spent years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, faced allegations that his actions in captivity mark him as a disloyal traitor.

The debate surrounding Bowe Bergdahl is part of our continued struggle to balance idealized expectations of soldierly virtue against the psychological strains of modern warfare. A retired U.S. Army officer recently argued that if Bergdahl is determined to have deserted his post, we should not be surprised that the “heavy baggage of war” led a soldier to act in a manner that defied standards for wartime heroism. Observations of this nature indicate an increasing understanding of the variety of ways that soldiers deal with emotional trauma. However, the coverage of Bergdahl’s release demonstrates that although the terms “desertion,” “surrender,” and “capture” may be easily defined in the pages of military manuals, the words remain much more difficult to unravel in the court of public opinion.

Brian K. Feltman is assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. His book, The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond will be published in March 2015.