In a completely unscientific, anecdotal “poll” of veterans I know, most aren’t listening to Serial. Even if they were, it’s unlikely that the meager 0.5 percent of Americans who serve in the military would represent a large portion of the podcast’s audience. But the disconnect in “chickenhawk nation” between a tiny martial class and a mostly ambivalent civilian majority lends Serial an incredibly useful structure: the anthropological study. Episode two compared and contrasted two exotic tribes: the Pashtun warriors who took Bergdahl prisoner and the American warriors whose lumbering, baroque bureaucracy failed to rescue him. Both tribes seem equally alien to the average American (whoever that is).
Episode three focuses on Bergdahl’s time as a POW, which is an even more rarefied experience than simply serving in combat. It’s a status achieved, in our current war in Afghanistan at least, solely by Bowe Bergdahl himself. If an existential divide separates civilians from soldiers, then another one, equally unfathomable, divides the soldier from the POW. Episode three gives us the experiences of the member of a tribe (POW) within a tribe (soldier), each set further away from the cosseted center of American consciousness.
Koenig tells us that the episode will be framed by two escape attempts, two “shitty bookends to a terrible year.” The only mention we get of the “outside” world, which is really the American military within Afghanistan, is the recording of a radio broadcast meant to boost Bergdahl’s spirits, occasional retrospectives on how Bergdahl’s intelligence debriefings correlate with his own account of his escape attempts, and examples of rumors about Bergdahl that American intelligence was picking up during his imprisonment. Other than that, it’s complete radio silence. You’re in the cell with Bergdahl as he’s beaten. You’re with him as he’s ridiculed and made to laugh at himself. You struggle to keep up with the catalogue of aches, illnesses, and discomforts, and are almost too exhausted in sympathy to feel elation the few times that he does manage to slip away.
According to a military intelligence debriefer quoted in the episode, Bergdahl’s imprisonment had three stages: torture, abuse, and then neglect. Bergdahl had to learn how to survive under each of these conditions. Koenig says he was learning the “lessons of survival”: Don’t ask for things (they’re likely to be withheld or reduced), the stinkier you are the less your captors want to physically handle you, it helps to appear smaller and weaker than you might actually be, etc. These survival lessons that Bergdahl was learning as he went along provide an interesting counterpoint to the rumors, or “stray voltage,” that American intelligence was picking up and that Mark Boal himself caught wind of: that Bergdahl had converted to Islam. That he was riding horses and playing soccer. That he had gone hunting with an old English rifle.
The truth of the matter is that Bergdahl wasn’t compliant with the Taliban, and he was punished for his defiance. His first escape attempt was within the first week he was taken into custody. He was beaten, moved to a new location, and then tied spread-eagle to a bed where he was left for three months. He developed weeping sores and infections. He had diarrhea for three and a half years. His time as a prisoner was macabre. Boal calls the story of his imprisonment “incomprehensibly dark.” “SERE [survival, evasion, resistance, and escape] guys were surprised you weren’t a total vegetable,” Boal comments to Bergdahl over the phone.
SERE training is a kind of advanced school for avoiding and then surviving becoming a POW that not actually all that many service members get to attend. Bowe Bergdahl had the same level of SERE training that I did when I deployed, which is a PowerPoint familiarity with something called the Code of Conduct. The CoC can be distilled down to: Only give up if you’re forced to give up, don’t accept preferential treatment, always try to escape, don’t badmouth your country, and keep the faith. When I deployed, I was under the same impression as some of Bergdahl’s battle buddies, who Koenig says felt that Bergdahl was only supposed to give his name, rank, and Social Security number. Nothing more. He certainly wasn’t supposed to make videos for the Taliban where he says he is being “treated better than as a guest in many American households.”
But the actual rules concerning POW behavior are more complicated than the Code of Conduct suggests. Bergdahl was forced at gunpoint to make these videos, and, as Koenig says, “you are not expected to die while making a video.” If anything, any video is fantastic just as proof of life. They’re also proof of the inherent failure of torture to extract information. After being beaten with rubber hoses, having the bottoms of his feet whipped with copper wire, and being tied up in dark rooms for days on end, Bergdahl was willing to say almost anything they wanted. That’s how torture works. The information procured is usually false — and when the truth is told, the torturers usually don’t believe it.
Which is exactly what happened with Bergdahl during his interrogations. In what was probably the oddest moment of the episode, Bergdahl recounts to Boal the obscenely surreal line of questioning that his captors employed: “How do officers get their prostitutes on base?” “What drugs do you take on base?” “Are all women in America prostitutes?” “Is Obama gay?” Koenig wonders if they might have been trying to rile Bergdahl up with the absurd questions, or is “their understanding of our world as paltry as our understanding of theirs?” And so we’re back to the theme of anthropological study. What pretense has to be stripped away, à la The Radiance of the King, in order for us to understand them?
Sure, Bergdahl made videos. But he also went beyond the letter of the CoC, attempting numerous escapes and paying attention to any scrap of detail that might have given him an indication of his location. He figured out that he was in North Waziristan because a boy showed off his school cap. He paid attention to names and mannerisms. Before his final escape attempt, he noticed the sound of artillery and helicopters losing altitude as they made landing approaches to what could only be a military base. The escape goes awry. He falls off a cliff face and the entire left side of his body is immobilized by the injury. He spent nine days crawling around amid near-spottings and supplied only with fetid water from a nearby creek. Koenig takes the opportunity to make an editorial comment, one of her most candid so far this season, that the escape story should put to rest any residual thoughts that Bergdahl might be a Taliban sympathizer.
She’s absolutely right. And as I listened to Bergdahl talk about having his hair and beard pulled out after being recaptured (an actual beating might have killed him, he was in such bad shape), the importance of the emotional reality of his capture was clear. Knowing what Bergdahl went through gives the narrative an ontological heft that eludes political or legal bird’s-eye views of the story. Knowing what Bergdahl suffered complicates our instinct to judge him, makes our moralizing seem abstract and almost petty. But maybe in January Koenig’s “zooming” technique will subvert the contagious visceral sympathy in this episode and give it new context, cast it in a new light. Koenig says that the next episode, posting January 7, will showcase the diplomatic forces that are trying to bring Bergdahl back while simultaneously trying to pull out of the war. We’ve had a lot of victims and villains in the podcast so far, and as the politicians are thrown in the mix we might have to continue holding our breath on a hero.