Serial Season 2 Episode 5 Recap: The Bureaucratic Shell Game

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I keep thinking to myself after each new episode of Serial that next week will be the week they decide to zoom out completely (à la Koenig’s first-episode metaphor) and give us something resembling a bird’s-eye view of the entire story. Episode five is as close as we’ve yet gotten to that actually happening. Sure, there are still granular details, like the size of a Portland, Oregon, police station and the drab cubicles of a military office in Tampa; but if anything can be gleaned from Serial about how to construct a compelling narrative, it’s that the shift between particulars and context propels the story forward. And that’s especially true in an episode like this, where the story itself is stasis, bureaucratic lethargy, and, ultimately, non-action.

The episode begins with Kim Harrison, a family friend of Bergdahl’s who he put down on Army paperwork as his emergency contact in case he went missing or anything happened to him. Kim is in a Portland, Oregon, police station, trying to file a missing persons report on Bergdahl in a desperate bid to do something, anything, to find his whereabouts. It’s all part of a Rube Goldberg plot to get Interpol involved in the search for Bergdahl, which would require a “yellow notice” establishing his case as “official police business” somewhere in the world. But they would need permission from the Department of Defense to begin their investigation, and that permission was denied 12 hours after the request was made. Koenig insinuates that the denial was most likely predicated upon our particularly strained relationship with Pakistan at the time: NATO air strikes on the border had killed Pakistani soldiers, the contractor Raymond Davis had recently killed two Pakistani men, and our raid on Abbottabad had just happened.

Jump cut to Tampa, Florida, the headquarters of CENTCOM, or Central Command. Koenig speaks to two women using pseudonyms who work for CENTCOM in Tampa doing personnel recovery for the Afghanistan theatre. That’s right, just two people. For the entirety of Afghanistan. Sure, soldiers didn’t disappear as often in Afghanistan as they did in Iraq, where an entire personnel-recovery “division” (I don’t think she literally meant an entire division here — roughly 15,000 troops — but probably something more like the corporate use of the term: a full team of people dedicated to a single purpose) was based, but still, two people isn’t enough, as became obvious with the Bergdahl case. The women bemoan lack of experts on the ground. They complain about Bergdahl being held in Pakistan, where the CIA, not the Department of Defense, controls the battle space. But later on in the episode, they talk about the biggest source of frustration about getting Bergdahl back: No one with any real political or military clout cared.

Combine the accounts of Kim Harrison and the women at CENTCOM, and it becomes pretty easy to formulate a general thesis for the episode: American military bureaucracy, inseparable from, and often times synonymous with, American military professionalism and technical prowess, didn’t help get Bergdahl home any faster. The failure of the military bureaucracy was that it operated just as capriciously as the personalities involved, undermining the animating purpose of having a technocratic bureaucracy in the first place. The purpose of a bureaucracy is to achieve efficiency by transcending the personal whims of the individuals that comprise an organization.

The CENTCOM employees were bribing generals with whiskey and beef jerky just to get meetings with them. One of them said she didn’t realize that she would have to “convince them that supporting my issue was something they should do.” Kim Harrison somehow got her name and phone number to a guy associated with the Taliban who, with a little assistance from the FBI, turned out to be “the real deal.” He had information about Bergdahl’s whereabouts that he was willing to give in exchange for relocating him and eight family members to America. He might have been the best lead they had in the case for years, but nothing ever came of it because no agency “wanted” to be responsible for taking care of nine people, possibly for the rest of their lives. “Nathan,” a fairly low-level analyst, assisted Bergdahl’s father behind the scenes in a successful attempt to build attention for his son’s case among high-level, powerful people in the Pentagon and White House, which included making a video where he directly appeals to Pakistani generals by name to release his son. In a smoothly functioning bureaucracy, one where the delineation of tasks was absolutely clear and not dependent upon the moods of powerful people, none of this should have happened. People either entirely outside of or very low-ranking within the system shouldn’t have had to clandestinely advocate for the functioning of the system. 

Jason Amerine, Special Forces legend who had an action figure made in his image, led a team that audited the effort to get Bergdahl back. What he describes to Koenig is a mess of shifting responsibilities and neglected obligations. Amerine thought, Wait, there are these Americans that nobody gives a fuck about. Nobody is doing anything to get them home. Our greater bureaucracy is treating their families horribly while telling them to just shut up and wait. To me it was bordering on criminal, the way we were treating our common citizens. Amerine found that the responsibility for finding and bringing home American imprisoned by the Taliban was lost in a bureaucratic shell game. No one knew who was taking lead. More important, no one cared. CENTCOM thought Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was handling it, who then passed it along to the State Department, who assumed the Department of Defense was taking point …

You might be tempted to assume that this was all a failure to properly organize, but the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our flow charts. Almost all of Koenig’s subjects who appear in this episode complain of the thick miasma of vitriol that surrounded the Bergdahl case. The word traitor is used a lot. But as Nate Bethea pointed out in a podcast for Task & Purpose, there’s a huge difference between a “traitor” and a “deserter.” A traitor actively works hand in hand with the enemy against America’s interests. A deserter flees his obligations. Of course, this is an overly simplistic dichotomy that doesn’t take mental health into account (still not sure why we’re not talking about that), but it’s indicative of the dramatic emotions involved with the Bergdahl case. If you think American soldiers are stoic automatons who never cloud their judgment with flamboyant emotions, I hate to break it to you, but it just ain't so. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that I haven’t met a demographic so emotionally involved with their work than American soldiers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is just another complicated question that this episode raises. What is obvious, though, is that these deep sentiments can undermine the cool and calculated functioning of bureaucratic machinations.

Koenig takes another opportunity to editorialize this episode when she talks about the rancor from people commenting on the Canadian Colin Rutherford’s release from the Taliban last week. People don’t just blame hostages for being captured; people are actually wishing ill on them. As the CENTCOM women say, “Circumstances of capture are not supposed to come into play,” but they do, of course. Koenig admits to feeling frustrated at people who make stupid decisions, like hikers who decide to take a vacation in Taliban-controlled areas, but ends by trying to see the logic in the “tangle of competing interests” that kept the Bergdahl case on ice for so many years. The logic she ascribes to the Pentagon is this: Bergdahl wasn’t worth the effort. In the end, he was just one human being, and any self-respecting cost/benefit analysis would indicate that Bergdahl wasn’t worth the effort, at least not until circumstances changed and he could be used to some larger end. It’s an analysis of bureaucratic motivations that Koenig has spent the entire episode repudiating. It’s also chilling. What good is the ethos of “no soldier left behind” if it’s saddled with the caveat of “so long as it’s in our interests”? Are these our options, then: a coldly functioning analytical bureaucracy that undermines martial values, or martial values embraced erratically and at the cost of bureaucratic consistency? The result seems to be the same either way.