The major selling point of the second season of the most popular podcast in America could potentially be a weakness. The website for “Serial,” stocked with supplemental multimedia material, promises to finally give us Bowe Bergdahl’s version of events, in his own words, including his decision to walk off a combat outpost, his capture by the Taliban, and his time in captivity. Until now, the American public has known Bergdahl mainly as a right-wing cipher: For years, he was the conservative media’s cause célèbre, who proved Obama doesn’t give a shit about the troops; after the 2014 prisoner swap that brought him home, when it became widely understood that he left his base in Afghanistan of his own volition, he became a poster boy for Obama’s softness on the enemy and coddling of traitors. So the prospect of hearing his version of the story without the filter of a conservative agenda is certainly tantalizing.
In this season’s first episode, Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of the podcast, tells us that Bowe Bergdahl spent over 25 hours in candid conversation with Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal, who wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Chunks of those recorded conversations constitute Bergdahl’s narrative on the podcast. Which is to say that, even though it is sometimes hard to remember while listening, Serial never — in the formal, journalistic sense — interviewed Bergdahl, despite the fact that the season is built around his story and his voice. Koenig presents the partnership with Boal and access to the taped phone conversations as a real get (which surely it is), but there’s also a sense that she and her collaborators might be trying to gloss over the huge gulf between a conversation and an interview. In the first episode at least, listeners are left wondering what these recordings are and what they aren’t. Are they ultimately just a Hollywood screenwriter disarming a traumatized veteran through hours of banter as part of a quest for the most entertaining narrative hook for his next movie? And if not, why isn’t Bergdahl challenged on any elements of his story?
Bergdahl’s saga was already muddy — this isn’t your usual POW tale. The controversial prisoner trade and the fact that he willingly left his base both complicate the usually Manichean “till the last one is home” narrative. An interesting thing to watch in coming episodes is whether Koenig and her producers show that they can tell a bigger and more complex story than they did last season, which was essentially a lurid and narrowly focused whodunit. It’s worth noting that Koenig openly admits, and more important accepts, at the beginning of the episode that Boal is more interested in landing on a compelling motivation for Bergdahl than in reaching any larger truth.
One of those larger issues that I hope is not subordinated to the personality-driven, why-did-he-do-it question concerns mental health and the military. I served in the Army as an enlisted infantry soldier on two tours of duty. During my own deployments in Iraq, mostly serving on a Bradley crew, I heard a few rumors about people walking off base, but never knew of a confirmed case. Even when the subject came up in the abstract though, everyone I was serving with understood one core fact about this kind of action: Cowards retreat to safer places, they don’t wander into enemy territory unarmed; the only people who do that are, for lack of a more delicate term, bat-shit crazy.
Hearing Bergdahl tell his story only strengthened my suspicions. The man definitely was not operating in reality. First, Bergdahl claims that there were important concerns with his leadership, from his time in basic up through his deployment to Afghanistan. He maintains that no one would listen to the complaints of a private first class, his rank at the time, and so he needed to do something big to get someone’s attention. So his plan was to leave his unit’s combat outpost (relatively small) and venture to a nearby Forward Operating Base (somewhat larger). During the time in between, while he was missing, something called a DUSTWUN (acronym for “duty status – whereabouts unknown”) would be set in motion, as is always the case when a soldier goes missing. Koenig describes it as a “man overboard” for the Army. Every friendly military unit operating in the Middle East would be alerted to Bergdahl’s absence, and he would, besides being in huge trouble, presumably be debriefed by someone of a relatively high rank. His plan was to then convey his leadership concerns to this person.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how nuts this is. His allegations are vague, even more vague than most people probably realize. When Bergdahl says he had concerns since basic, he’s talking about at least two different chains of command: a unit that receives new recruits, and then a different one that trains them. The unit he eventually deployed with would have another chain of command and non-commissioned-officer support chain altogether. So who exactly is Bergdahl taking issue with? And what are those issues? In this episode, they’re only characterized as a worry that someone might get killed because of a leader’s bad decision — an ironic concern for someone who wanders into Afghanistan armed with two knives and a compass. To call Bergdahl’s plan ill-conceived is a dramatic understatement. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but what he did was comparable to setting your cubicle on fire at work because you have issues you want to talk to the fire chief about. Boal calls his move “gutsy.” Bergdahl calls it “stupid.” Boal insists that sometimes the two are synonymous.
Koenig seems to have interviewed a lot of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers. She insists that they all agree that it’s unheard of for someone to do what Bergdahl did. In that chorus of voices, edited together in a sort of aural tapestry of disbelief, one remark stands out: “Nobody walks off of a FOB … or a combat outpost.” And he’s right, sort of. No one in their right mind walks off one. Koenig and her producers allow the statement to hang in the air ambiguously. Maybe that’s a subtle flag that Koenig will discuss Bergdahl’s mental health in a later episode. But in episode one, Bergdahl’s sanity is never seriously questioned, and the word crazy is only used in a colloquial, pejorative sense — even as Bergdahl’s plan gets further and further divorced from reality. He describes wanting to bring back valuable intelligence material to keep from getting in too much trouble – something like, you know, catching someone planting an IED and then following them back to their hideout. Tracking them. Alone. Without a gun. Bergdahl says that another reason he left post was to prove, à la Jason Bourne, that he “was capable of being that person” — that is, the kind of renegade superhero soldier that Hollywood makes movies about. Please remember, of course, who is on the other end of the line.
Four days after the episode went live, another big question emerged: The Army announced that Bergdahl now faces a general court-martial — the most serious potential scenario for him — which could carry a sentence of life in prison. This unexpected development came about after a top Army commander decided against the recommendations from a preliminary hearing that Begdahl should be brought up on a milder special court-martial and not be incarcerated. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the rare intervention by General Robert Abrams came on the heels of the release of the first “Serial” episode. Koenig suggests in episode one that her focus will expand in later episodes. Let’s hope that the byzantine and occasionally arbitrary military justice system — and any role that her own show might have played in Bergdahl’s harsh treatment — is part of that bigger story.