In the years since their capture in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and Army Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie have been largely forgotten by both Washington and the American public. There have been no protests demanding the government make whatever concessions necessary to win their release. Most Americans don’t even know their names.
The situation in Israel, one of America’s closest allies, could not be more different. The Jewish state held a national celebration on Tuesday following the safe return of Gilad Shalit, a young soldier freed in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Shalit had become a household name in Israel, where pop stars composed songs honoring Shalit and hundreds of thousands of Israelis regularly demonstrated to pressure the government to strike a deal with his captors.
Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009, and Altaie, missing in Iraq in 2006, are both thought to still be alive and in enemy captivity. The Haqqani Network, the militant group holding Bergdahl, regularly releases propaganda videos featuring the 25-year-old soldier, who looks increasingly haggard and frightened.
Yet the missing soldiers are largely invisible here at home. The White House and Pentagon rarely mention the two men and have made clear that they won't consider paying ransoms or freeing prisoners in exchange for the men’s release, as Israel has done.
The difference between Israel’s national obsession with Shalit—and its willingness to pay such a price to win his freedom—and the American indifference to Bergdahl and Altaie underscores a fundamental difference between the two societies. In Israel, where all citizens serve, the connection between nation and military runs deep. In the U.S., most Americans have no firsthand connection to the all-volunteer military, whose bases are located outside major cities and whose troops are largely invisible to the general public.
“The fact that we do now have an all-volunteer force which is culturally separated from so much of middle-class America and the geographic and population centers of America contributes to a general lack of concern for these wars and the people who have gone missing fighting them,” said Michael Allen, a Northwestern professor and author of Until the Last Man Comes Home, a history of the POW movement in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. “There’s just not much more interest anymore in talking about these wars.”
That has led to an enormous substantive difference in the ways the two countries treat missing soldiers. Israel has a stated willingness to negotiate with terror groups and has, in the past, freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners simply for bone fragments capable of confirming that a missing soldier was dead. In the U.S., successive presidential administrations have flatly refused to bargain with militant groups. Bergdahl’s captors in Afghanistan, for instance, have floated exchanging him for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. facilities, but Washington has ruled out any such trade.
Politically, the issue also resonates very differently in the two countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made freeing Shalit one of his top foreign-policy priorities, and polls show that his popularity has soared in Israel because of his success in winning the soldier’s freedom.
In Washington, by contrast, the White House press secretary issued a muted and brief response to Shalit’s release, telling reporters the administration was “pleased” he was free. Spokespeople for key lawmakers like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined comment about either Shalit or the missing U.S. soldiers.
The political complexities of the issue were on full display during Tuesday night's Republican debate. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked businessman Herman Cain about a recent comment in which he said he could envision "authorizing" the release of everyone currently held at the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to free an American POW held by al-Qaida. Cain tried to walk the comment back by insisting that he would retain a policy of never negotiating with terrorists, but he struggled to reconcile the latter statement with the previous one. That created an opening for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to assert their conservative bona fides by hammering Cain for his stated willingness to consider a prisoner swap. Bachmann derided Cain's position as "naive," saying it was "absolutely contrary to the historical nature of the United States and what we do in our policy." Santorum, for his part, insisted on maintaining the long-held American position that "you can't negotiate with terrorists, period."
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the two other leading Republican presidential candidates, sat out the exchanges entirely.
Aside from differences in policy between the two countries, some American military officials privately believe there's another, far less pleasant, reason for the difference in treatment between Shalit and the American soldiers. Shalit was captured in combat after a bloody attack which killed two other Israeli soldiers. The abductions of Bergdahl and Altaie took place under far murkier circumstances. Bergdahl disappeared from a small outpost in eastern Afghanistan, and there are lingering suspicions he may have initially walked off the base of his own volition. Altaie was married to an Iraqi woman and may have broken military policies by leaving his post to visit her shortly before his abduction.
But even American soldiers captured in combat during the two conflicts haven’t received the public or political attention paid to Shalit. Army PFC Keith Maupin was captured in Iraq in 2004 after his convoy was ambushed by heavily-armed militants. Maupin subsequently appeared in at least one insurgent video. During the four years which passed between his capture and the discovery of his remains in March 2008, Maupin’s case received only minimal press coverage and there was no public pressure on Washington to strike a deal for his freedom.
Whatever the reasons, the difference between Jerusalem's treatment of Shalit and Washington's handling of Bergdahl and Altaie is extremely painful to the two missing soldiers' friends, relatives, and supporters.
"Oct. 23 marks 5 long years,” Linda Racey, Altaie’s ex-wife, wrote on Tuesday on a Facebook page dedicated to the missing soldier.
The Facebook page dedicated to Altaie's release has just over 5,900 supporters. The one devoted to Bergdahl has about 18,000. Over the course of the day, as the imagery from Israel of Shalit's release spread, both pages filled up with notes from well-wishers paying public respect to the two men and sending along their hopes that both soldiers would soon be released.
But with little public pressure and no apparent willingness in Washington to seek deals with the captors of either Bergdahl or Altaie, there is another major difference between their cases and that of Shalit: The kidnapped American soldiers, unlike the captive Israeli one, won't be returning home to their families anytime soon.