Six episodes into the second installment of Serial, we continue to pull back, getting an ever expanding view of the vast network of US military personnel and Middle Eastern militants with an interest in Bowe Bergdahl’s case. While last season focused on the small questions that attempted to piece together the circumstances surrounding a major crime, this season is filled with massive institutional questions. The saga of Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who infamously walked off of his post in Afghanistan and was returned via prisoner exchange with the Taliban five years later, raises issues of military protocol and foreign policy, of the power of the individual and the responsibility of the group. The focus of Serial this season isn’t just the question of why Bergdahl abandoned his post, but also what Bergdahl’s story can tell us about the complicated relationship between America’s military and the myriad forces vying for power in the Middle East.
Though there are many questions left to be answered, one thing is clear: Bowe Bergdahl is a strange guy. So far, Bergdahl’s story has been an odd mix of comedy and tragedy. Sometimes you get a clear sense of purpose and determination from Berghdahl. In other moments, accounts of his actions play like the absurdist comedy of a man who can’t live up to his own mythology. Here are the weirdest things said by (and about) Bowe Bergdahl—so far.
“And first pick … Sergeant Bergdahl was going to be the first pick for everybody almost every time. He was a great soldier.” – Weapons Squad Leader Greg Leatherman
One of the most shocking revelations of episode 6 was that Bowe Bergdahl was a good soldier. After hearing him wish he could be like Jason Bourne and visualizing the tragicomic fish out of water circumstances of his capture, it is odd to hear that Bergdahl was competent, let alone admired by his peers.
Episode 6 takes us deep inside of Bergdahl’s unit, and digs into the tension between the enlisted men of his unit and the decision makers. Then the episode broadened to speculate that the directionless feeling that Bergdahl and his unit felt might have been systemic in the Afghan War.
“My disillusionment started … when I first got to my unit.” – Bowe Bergdahl
From the beginning, Bergdahl found the Army to be a disappointment. Instead of fighting, they were setting up guard stations and handing out color books to the Afghan people. Instead of a clear mission, their orders felt contradictory. They were told that they were going to win the hearts and minds of the locals, but many in the unit felt they didn’t have the tools or the circumstances in which to do that.
Bergdahl had hoped for a fight. What he got looked to him like a mess.
“The first thing that comes out of the battalion commander’s mouth is ’What? You couldn’t shave?” – Bowe Bergdahl, on Lt. Col. Clint Baker
Bowe struggled with his disappointment, but mainly kept quiet, until he and some fellow soldiers came back from a lethal encounter with the Taliban. Instead of being asked if they were alright, Bergdahl claims, the first thing they heard when they got back to base was a dressing down for not shaving.
The other soldiers took this in stride more or less, but for Bergdahl this struck a nerve.
“We’d sit there and shake our heads and think … This is bullshit.” – Bowe Bergdahl
The cloudy objective coupled with the tension with leadership gnawed at Bergdahl. He grew to resent Baker and the larger mission. Later, some soldiers, including Bergdahl were chewed out for being out of regulation uniforms when a press photographer took some candid shots. Again, Bergdahl felt that he and his peers were disrespected and ignored.
Shortly afterwards, Bergdahl decided to walk off base.
“Everyone in the military will tell you that you’re really effective from month three to month nine. You’re really rocking and rolling.”
“They’re fighting their struggle. We’re fighting ours. We never bothered to say, ’Do these two things actually overlap?'” – Jason Dempsey
Former military officer and PhD. Jason Dempsey comes in later in the episode to discuss the broader mission in Afghanistan. The plan to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people should involve, in his estimation, a 30-40 year time table. The plan was to do this in Afghanistan in a matter of months.
Why should the Afghan people listen to US soldiers? What is the US trying to accomplish? Why are they training soldiers as fighters when what they want is humanitarian peacekeepers?
After 5 episodes where Bergdahl looked alternately crazy and pathetic, we finally get into his head a bit. For how poorly thought out his leaving the base was, in some ways, episode 6 made Bowe’s actions start to make sense.
After last week was largely spent in Afghanistan, this episode returned to the United States. We start with Kim, a friend of Bowe’s, and hear about her attempts to do something, anything, on behalf of Bergdahl. From there, Koenig uses Kim as a way into the vast United States intelligence apparatus that worked on Bowe’s behalf. Anonymous analysts shared their stories of attempting to assist Bowe. This week’s installment was a story of underfunded, overworked operatives, limited by the complicated realities of international relationships trying to bring Bergdahl home.
How do you rescue a prisoner being held captive in Pakistan, a country that is a.) our ally and b.) wouldn’t admit he was being held there? It’s complicated.
“I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of times I heard, ’Why should I care?'” – Andrea and Michelle
In an office in Florida, Andrea and Michelle (not their real names) worked to find any information they could about Bergdahl. Part of their work was raising awareness about Bergdahl within the military and ensuring that everything possible was being done. Not only did they find that some officers hadn’t heard of Bergdahl, but they found that some officers weren’t interested in spending any effort to bring Bergdahl home.
“Nathan began talking to the Bergdahls weekly … you know that person, that group or that commander who says they’re doing everything they can. They could be doing this.” – Sarah Koenig
Nathan (another analyst who also didn’t use his real name) took matters into his own hands. He reached out to Bergdahl’s family and helped them apply pressure to the military during Bowe’s detention. Though he wouldn’t say exactly how this helped, he is convinced that his assistance moved the ball forward in the quest to bring Bergdahl home.
After a third episode that attempted to provide insight into Bergdahl’s experience and its impact on his psyche, episode four opened up to explore the wider world. The aptly titled “The Captors” explore the perspective of the Taliban operatives who held Bowe Bergdahl captive.
“If you could set aside the circumstances of his capture, Bowe would be a huge success story for the Army.” – Unnamed Army Official
Of course, Sarah Koenig points out, you can’t set aside the reality that Bergdahl is a deserter. However, Koenig points out that Bergdahl living and resisting through five years of captivity is an achievement in its own right. This seems ridiculous, considering we’ve heard three hours of Bergdahl’s tragi-comic experience.
“It took Bowe a long time to ween himself off of time.” – Sarah Koenig
As Koenig described Bergdahl’s experience as a captive, she talked about his adversarial relationship with time. After he was released, he tended to avoid clocks and calendars. While he was a captive, he was better off losing all sense of time passing.
“There are a lot of images out there of captives wearing orange jumpsuits a la Guantanamo Bay … I hadn’t realized how present Guantanamo and other prisons are for these guys” – Sarah Koenig
One of the most interesting revelations in episode four was the specter of Guantanamo Bay hovering over Bergdahl’s capture. Every captor he encountered either viewed him as an opportunity to show how relatively civilized they are to their prisoners or to show Americans that they can return brutality with brutality. The vicious power of revenge shows up again and again on both sides in accounts from both sides of the conflict.
“If you’re thinking Bowe went crazy, he didn’t.” – Sarah Koenig
This may be the strangest thing that Koenig has said so far this season. After hearing four hours of Bergdahl’s strange behavior. After hearing him claim that he wanted to be like Jason Borne. After his descriptions of his clumsy escape attempts, Koening is careful to point out that he isn’t crazy.
Could have fooled us.
Episodes 1, 2, and 3
“The lives of the guys standing next to me were in danger of something seriously going wrong.”
This is where we start with Bowe Bergdahl: his stated reason for walking off of his post in Afghanistan and causing a “DUSTWUN” (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown). Bergdahl believed that there were serious “leadership failures” in his command. He believed that walking off would draw attention to those failures.
Oddly, he wasn’t able to get very specific about those failures. His fellow soldiers spoke of hardships — being stationed in Afghanistan is no walk in the park — but it seems only Bergdahl saw the systemic failure that he believed required causing an international incident to lay bear.
“Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don’t know, Jason Bourne. I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing,”
While Bergdahl initially claimed that his reason for leaving was to draw attention to leadership issues, another odd motivation emerges quickly. Some part of Bowe wanted to prove something. He wanted to be the real life version of a super spy, a warrior hero. By all accounts, this dream was dashed quickly, but at one point Bergdahl believed that he could be like Jason Bourne.
“I don’t know what it was, but there I was in the open desert, and I’m not about to outrun a bunch of motorcycles, so I couldn’t do anything against, you know, six or seven guys with AK-47s,”
In the first episode, Bergdahl paints a dramatic, Mad Max style picture of the Taliban rolling up on him with motorcycles and capturing him. In episode two, a tamer narrative emerges of nomads, local police, and the Taliban spotting Bergdahl taking pictures, and eventually apprehending him. It likely wasn’t as dramatic as he remembers it. He may not have even been captured by motorcycles.
“He tried to fight off the Taliban with karate.”
Amazingly, Koening was able to interview several members of the Taliban in concert with Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai. The picture that the Taliban paint of Bergdahl isn’t one of brave confrontation or covert intrigue. Instead, the Taliban’s reports of their interactions with Bergdahl are just kind of strange.
The Afghan reports of Bergdahl’s behavior are oddly bipolar. Sometimes, they describe him being as placid and mute as a statue. Yet, they recall other moments when he lashed out with karate moves. These Taliban accounts are as ridiculous as they are sad. And yes, they are a far cry from Jason Bourne.
“We would have killed him.”
You might think this is a quote from the Taliban, but it is actually a sentiment shared by a number of American military men who were tasked with looking for Bergdahl. The US military has a policy of not leaving soldiers behind in a war zone. This meant that top brass felt compelled to wage a massive manhunt for Bergdahl. Not only his batallion was put into action, but American soldiers across Afghanistan were ordered to take part in the man hunt. Some were even taken off the hunt for Osama Bin Laden to look for Bergdahl.
This led to dangerous encounters in booby trapped warehouses, wild goose chases across the desert, and even inspecting Afghan women in case one of them was Bergdahl in disguise. After you hear the stories of troops combing the desert with depleted rations and ripped clothes, you kind of start to see their point.
“Picture someone taking a bag, throwing it in the closet and shutting the door and just forgetting about it. That was basically how they treated me.”
The third episode focuses on Bergdahl’s several ill-fated escape attempts. The shocking thing about this episode wasn’t how poorly Bergdahl was treated. Being chained to a bed and beaten with a rubber hose doesn’t sound like a picnic, but is hardly a surprise given what we know about the cruelty of war. What is striking is how neglect can psychologically impact a captive, which characterized the last portion of Bergdahl’s capture.
“[I was] taking it slow and easy and I fell off a cliff.”
Though Bergdahl imagined he would be a kind of “Jason Bourne,” at times his story reminds you more of Confederacy of Dunces or Don Quixote. His stories of attempted escape are punctuated by old women and shepherds who look at him askance and by foiled plans that prove the man is no survivalist. One of his best attempts at escape was ruined partially because he grew weak looking for vegetation in the arid Pakistani landscape. Thus far, Bergdahl’s story isn’t the harrowing tale of a hero, but an account of a man who got himself in way over his head.
We’ll be checking in next week to hear more of Bergdahl’s story, and to see what other forces get pulled into his orbit.