I usually come away from an episode of this season’s Serial with a strong emotional reaction. I get angry at the military or at Bergdahl. Someone’s interpretation of events inspires incredulity. I’m delighted at a detail or wistful about one of my own memories that some random subplot inspires. This episode (two, actually, posted back to back on subsequent days), however, was a first for me: It made me cry.
By way of explaining why, I also need to apologize. Throughout my recaps of the last six episodes, I’ve been constantly hammering away at what I thought was a galling lack of focus on Bergdahl’s mental-health issues. No one, not in modern wars fought by the American military, at least, walks away from a base without having some sort of mental breakdown, I thought.
Be careful what you wish for.
These episodes, which should really be considered two parts of a whole, are bookended with Bergdahl mental-health assessments. The first is when he’s kicked out of Coast Guard boot camp a few years prior to joining the Army, for having some sort of breakdown/bloody nose. The second is the diagnosis he’s given of schizotypal personality disorder during a post-POW rescue mental-health examination. And instead of explaining his actions, or who Bergdahl is as a man, each lands with a mysteriously dull thud. They seem at best to be “data points,” as Mark Boal refers to them, or at worst like an abdication of truly trying to understand Bergdahl’s motivations. The most interesting parts of the episode(s) are contained within these mental-health bookends and can be summed up as: (1) Did the Army make a mistake in letting Bergdahl enlist? (2) Is there an outlet through which Bergdahl could have expressed his almost anachronistic moral code?
I enlisted as an infantryman in the United States Army in 2005. Almost everyone I know lied about something during the enlistment process. Usually it was if they had ever smoked pot, or how often they had smoked pot. Some people I know were afraid to say that they hadn’t ever smoked, worrying that that might itself have the appearance of a lie. Being in the infantry, I also knew a lot of guys who got waivers. Most were legal waivers. This waiver system plays a huge role in the episode, since Bergdahl needed one to enlist in the Army. Bergdahl joined the Coast Guard, had trouble during boot camp, and was found one day with a bloody nose, shaking and inconsolable. He was separated from the Coast Guard (i.e., he got to go home), and the doctor who evaluated him stipulated that he would need another psych eval were he ever to try to join the armed forces. That note somehow got lost in the shuffle, but the fact of his separation remained, and so there was an extra step, a bureaucratic road-bump, really, to his enlisting in the Army. Bergdahl came into the Army during a time when it was hungry for manpower. The surge was happening and they needed bodies, especially the infantry. In 2007, 20 percent of enlistees received waivers. In 2008, the year that Bergdahl enlisted, 17 percent did.
It would be easy to see this as ridiculous on the part of the military, lowering their standards so that they could pump up their numbers, but to invoke a Rumsfeldian construct: When you have an all-volunteer force, you go to war with the Army that wants to enlist, not the Army that you want to enlist. Besides, just because someone needs a waiver doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll make a bad soldier. Some of the best infantrymen I knew had received waivers. Some had even served time. These were tough kids, most of whom were hardworking and didn’t take for granted the second chance that military service offered them. You can’t lay all the blame on the recruiter who “let” Bergdahl enlist, or the on the waiver system itself.
As interesting as the waiver angle is (and it is, especially for someone who might not be familiar with it, I’m sure), it’s the story of who Bergdahl himself is that has the most heft in these episodes. Piggybacking on Bergdahl’s post-POW debriefs, we get his entire story, dating back to childhood. We get the rural upbringing, the isolation and homeschooling, the idiosyncratic way that Bergdahl approached the world around him, and his stiff and unrelenting if wildly oversimplified moral code. He starts working when he’s only 13, taking fencing classes at 15, finds an adoptive home in a coffee shop. Bergdahl rambles around as a young man. He tries salmon fishing in Alaska, a charter boat class in Florida. He makes his way to France to join the French Foreign Legion (which obviously doesn’t pan out). He tries to bike down the entirety of the West Coast but gets hit by a car. He’s searching for something, and he doesn’t seem quite sure of what, or to have any realistic expectation of what he’ll eventually find.
This is what brought me tears. For the first time this season, I really saw myself in Bergdahl. Our circumstances were wildly different. So are our dispositions. But I felt the same hunger when I was young, and I was afflicted with the same naïveté. I had wild, romantic notions about sucking the marrow out of life, about breaking myself down and rebuilding myself in a sort of crucible. I didn’t want what I considered banal professionalism. But here’s the rub: Everything is banal professionalism. Even in the military, which Bowe comes to realize, as I did, too. There are few places in the world, the Western world, at that, where one can indulge in Virtue Ethics instead of Deontological Ethics. Bowe says near the end of the episodes that he “…wanted to be a World War II soldier … I wanted to be a samurai soldier, warrior, fighter …” Mark Boal chuckles at the statement, but I got it. And I think for the first time I got him. He was looking for not an adrenaline rush, but the highest level of moral intensity accessible to human experience.
After deploying to Iraq twice and separating from the Army, I moved to New York City. Most people were shocked when they found out I was a veteran. Most people in my social circle, I should say. The question they asked was always the same: “Why did you join the Army?” It was never posed in good faith, out of curiosity. It was always a veiled accusation. Frankly, it was a little rude.
I never responded with: “Why did you settle for living your cheap, neurotic life?” But I always wanted to. I always wanted to tell them that, for a brief moment in my life, I had a boss and co-workers who would have died for me. Koenig brings this up when she calls herself a “dyed-in-the-wool civilian” and asks herself who she would die for. Her kids, she decides. But serving in the military is one of the few experiences in which one has an existential imperative to die, and sometimes kill, as a matter of honor. It’s a world away from our predominant “give me convenience or give me death” strip-mall culture.
Bowe’s dissatisfaction with the cheapness of modern culture — and with a military that is increasingly prone to the same banalities as the average workplace — wasn’t indulgent (even if his actions might have been), and to pathologize it seems worse than an oversimplification. It seems like a willful evasion of a very sincere indictment. So, yeah, I cried a little bit. I can’t believe I have to wait two more weeks for another episode.