Serial Season-Two Finale Recap: ‘Present for Duty’

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, leaves a military courthouse on December 22, 2015, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images) Photo: Sara D. Davis/2015 Getty Images

So this is it: the last episode of the season. I would call it a “finale,” except it doesn’t have quite the drama or feeling of conclusion provided by most finales. I’ll explain why that’s probably appropriate later, but don’t expect to come away from this episode with a sense of closure. Instead, anticipate an ending closer to what’s known in poetic terms as an “end-stopped line,” in which a line ends with a pause to let the reader ponder the larger implications of the poem — implications either tastefully understated for dramatic effect, or rightfully recognized as so complex as to be just out of reach of the rational human mind. Few topics are impenetrable enough to deserve such an ending. Love, maybe. Death. Certainly war.

And did we ever really expect Koenig et al. to be able to answer the questions they posed in the first episodes? Even Koenig’s novel zoom-in, zoom-out method, focusing first on the day-to-day life of Bergdahl, then on the political machinations a million miles away, ended up clarifying things at the same rate that it complicated them. In the process, the big questions, the questions of fault, guilt, and culpability, got elevated to an almost metaphysical level.

Koenig says that it seems like the “scales are balanced.” Sure, Bergdahl made huge mistakes, but he also spent five brutal years in captivity. If punishment was ever deserved, wasn’t that enough? But as she makes clear, what people in the Army are looking for is a kind of “reckoning.” For those people, the issue of justice centers on whether or not soldiers were killed while looking for Bergdahl, and, if they were, then Bergdahl himself is responsible for their deaths. Most of this episode is dedicated to untying the complicated knot of whether soldiers died “because” of Bergdahl. For retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the answer is yes: “It’s a no-brainer.” But Koenig is dubious about such simple, pat answers. We should be, too.

The idea that Bergdahl is directly responsible for the deaths of other soldiers sprang up with the grunts on the ground; if you have any military experience, you won't find that surprising. After Bowe got home, troops took to the airwaves and op-ed pages, calling him a traitor. In a sort of contemporary folklore that built up around the Bergdahl case — the kind that's prevalent among enlisted guys, if only because of their lack of perspective and “zoom out” information — it was thought that his desertion was directly responsible for the deaths of six soldiers who were killed while searching for him. A clothing company even made a T-shirt that read “Fuck Bergdahl” with six stars underneath, each representing one of those soldiers.

Koenig talks to one of the guys in Bowe’s platoon who was on a mission during which someone died “looking for Bergdahl,” one of the dignified stars under the T-shirt’s crass motto. But from the guy’s description of the mission, the direct connection to Bergdahl is dubious, at best. It’s important to understand that military missions always have more than a single objective. They’re meant to accomplish many things at once. From what the soldier describes to Koenig, it sounds like the patrol he was on was part of a larger mission to make inroads into an area of strategic importance between the Pakistani border and a main highway that runs through Kabul. They were also looking for a high-value Taliban target. Of course, until Bowe was in hand, I’m sure every unit in Afghanistan had to have “Oh, yeah, and if you see any sign of Bergdahl, say something” as part of their pre-mission brief.

Koenig compares it to an “umbrella” that sort of covers everything else that’s going on, but the connection is tenuous. To make the claim that guys died while Bergdahl was missing, which means that Bergdahl is responsible for their deaths, is, well, bullshit. Retired Command Sergeant Major Ken Wolf, of Bergdahl’s unit, explicitly tells Koenig that people’s kids did not die looking for Bergdahl. “Here’s the deal,” says Wolf. “It’s been 45-plus days. At this point we know where he’s at. He’s in Pakistan. A vanilla unit like the 501st is not leaving its battle space and going to Pakistan to find him.” Wolf goes on to say that it didn’t really matter all that much, in the huge scheme of things, that Bergdahl walked off. “There was conflict that was so much deeper than Bergdahl,” Wolf tells Koenig, “and quite frankly so much more important than Bergdahl.”

That isn’t to say that Bergdahl’s disappearance didn’t have any effect whatsoever. A former Special Forces guy tells Koenig that after Bergdahl went missing, the threshold for going out of the wire became much lower. People would use Bergdahl’s DUSTWUN as an excuse to get a mission approved. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Edgar, the guy in charge of managing the search for Bergdahl, admits that a few units began to try to take advantage of the greater resources available for the mission of recovering Bergdahl, but it wasn’t pervasive.

But arguing from what Koenig terms “second-order effects” that Bergdahl caused the death of those six soldiers is just a convenient fiction for angry people looking for a scapegoat. The truth is — and I think this is the big takeaway from this season — that it’s impossible to trace simple cause and effect in a war. War is just too complicated, too fraught with a mélange of Machiavelli’s fortuna and Clausewitz’s Nebel des Krieges. The chain of events is too complex to be able to, with absolute certainty, label something or someone as a first cause. In a war, every event is just a contributing factor and every person is an accomplice.

Lieutenant Colonel Edgar told Koenig that what happened to Bowe is normal in a war. And he’s right, it is. Many other people have walked off base. None of them were captured, so they didn’t make the headlines. They were sent back to the States or to Germany for mental-health treatment. Bowe was different only because he got captured, because he became a media fixation. Basically, not because of what he did, but how other people responded. Edgar told Koenig, “When you sign up for war as a society, you sign up for this. You sign up for disillusioned youth. You sign up for all the things that attend war.”

This is the “end-stopped line” that the show finishes on: the accusation that we’re the ones to truly blame, as a society, for not doing everything we could to end the war or prevent it in the first place. Our complicity hangs in the air, as unresolved as the war that we’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know this season of Serial wasn’t as popular as the last, and I think besides the occasionally alienating complexity of the military, this collective culpability is primarily the reason why. The entire season builds up to a guilty verdict, not for Bergdahl or the Army, but for a daydream nation willfully insulating itself from the violence being waged in its name, half-bored by the brutal projects of empire. Fuck Bergdahl? Fuck us.