Why Do Americans Care So Much Less About Captured Troops Than Israelis?

The difference between Israel's national obsession with Gilad Shalit -- and its willingness to pay such a price to win his freedom -- and the American indifference to Bowe Bergdahl and Ahmed Altaie underscores a fundamental difference between the two societies

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U.S. Army Private Bergdahl, missing in Afghanistan since June 2009, watches as one of his captors displays his identity tag at an unknown location / Reuters

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 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.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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