Episode six begins with Mark Boal being absolutely shocked that General Kenneth Dahl’s debrief of Bergdahl (which just covered what led to his decision to walk off the post, not his captivity) was over 300 pages long. “What did you do, tell him every fucking meal you had while deployed?” jokes Boal during a call with Bergdahl — who, for his part, seems amused by Boal’s shock. It’s a great way to kick off an episode that deals with just that: the surprising amount of context that most people probably aren’t even aware exists in the Bergdahl case, specifically the frustrations of an average grunt on the front lines of the Global War on Terror. “He wanted to understand who I was as a person,” Bergdahl says of General Dahl. “I needed to explain where it began.”
As a former Infantry grunt myself, this was an episode after my own heart. It was packed with tidbits of information, details, rules, and Army culture that most civilians are never exposed to. As the exhaustiveness of General Dahl’s report shows, it might be an experience that even higher-ranking officers have trouble accessing. Unlike the Civil War or World War II, conflicts in which everyone and their cousin fought, the experiences of troops fighting current wars are largely occluded from the public. Most people experience the wars waged in their name secondhand, if at all, in the consumption of movies, books, and podcasts. It’s optional. They don’t know what a SAW (squad automatic weapon) is, much less what it actually feels like being ordered to shave after coming off of a few days outside the wire.
This episode is rooted in those kinds of particulars, the phenomenological details of common experience that bind groups together more surely than abstract ideas. Sarah Koenig calls this episode a “zoom-in,” and I agree. But it’s more complicated than that. A better metaphor might be the dolly zoom, where a camera moves toward a subject while at the same time using the lens to shift the field of view, creating an odd distortion in perspective. You see it in horror movies a lot. It focuses more closely on subjects while giving the impression that the world is expanding and shifting around them, as if revealing more detail somehow also affects the larger setting.
According to his platoon-mates, Bergdahl was a good soldier. One of the highest compliments a junior enlisted Infantry guy can get is that he’s a “PT stud,” someone who is really good at physical training, running, push-ups, etc. Bergdahl studied the supplementary handbooks that most privates avoid. He volunteered for work and helped his battle buddies out with their tasks when he had a free moment. He was, in military parlance, squared away. But he was also weird. Not that that matters all that much — “normal” is something that rarely exists, especially among the one percent of Americans who decided to join up after 9/11 — but Bergdahl smoked a pipe instead of cigarettes. He refused to join in dirty jokes, listened to classical music, and read a lot. People perceived Bergdahl as cultivating eccentricity, and that’s a problem. You’re better off being profoundly weird in the Army than a person with an obvious and superficial quirk. A grunt who forgets all of his kid’s birthdays is laughed at as a rapscallion. A grunt who smokes a pipe and listens to Vivaldi is derided as a “hipster.”
Nevertheless, Bergdahl by all accounts took his job seriously. Very seriously. He lived a Spartan existence, sleeping without a mattress and clutching a tomahawk against his chest. He refused to lock up his stuff with the reasoning that if he couldn’t trust his fellow soldiers around his belongings, how could he trust them with his life downrange? This “too high speed for regular Infantry” attitude is something that I saw a lot of when I served. I didn’t share in it (I actually hate running), but I have sympathy for it. I had the same disappointment with college. I thought it was supposed to be a secular monastery where fellow cenobites dedicated themselves to Thought with a capital T. I didn’t understand why there was a business school and basketball team.
So there are two events that actually push Bergdahl over the edge. In one, after being stuck outside of the wire for literally days, IEDs exploding, capped off with a complex Taliban ambush, Bergdahl’s unit returns to base and is immediately ordered by the battalion commander to shave. After the tense danger and pathetic squalor of the mission, to return to such a vapid response is absolutely infuriating, even for the listener. Shave? They were supposed to be thinking about that? That’s actually a priority? It was. It is. While occupying a combat outpost during my first deployment to Iraq I shaved twice a day, whenever I could. It seems ridiculous, and it is, but there’s logic behind it: It’s regulation. Your job is following the rules, all of them, all of the time.
It’s the same reason why the brass was so upset about the second thing that set Bergdahl off: digging to expand an outpost while not wearing combat gear, an image that was captured by a photographer for The Guardian. The battalion commander saw the guys hanging out without gear, not combat-ready, and he made a fuss. Bergdahl calls it a “fashion show,” but Ken Wolf, the commander’s No. 2, compares the breach of uniform regulation to the breakdown of discipline that led to the Mai Lai massacre during Vietnam. It’s a stretch of a comparison, of course, but a revealing one, in that Mai Lai happened because of fucked-up strategy from the top, not in spite of it or in defiance of it. “Destroying a village to save it” wasn’t a concept some 18-year-old kid drafted out of Mobile, Alabama, came up with on the plane ride over. Neither were body counts, but misunderstanding the war at the top trickles all the way down to privates.
The top-down strategy that most of Bergdahl’s complaints spring from is COIN, an acronym (because things aren’t real in the military unless they’ve been transformed into an acronym) for Counterinsurgency, the brainchild of General Petraeus, who had recently taken over Afghanistan strategy when Bergdahl’s unit got there. Petraeus literally wrote the book on COIN, FM 3-24, the closest thing to the I-Ching that the American military ever produced. To quote Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules, FM 3-24 is “an exercise in deconstruction, dismantling hallowed conceptions of warfare while contriving a substitute suited to the exercise of great power politics in the twilight of modernity. In the postmodern age, after all, what matters most is not originality but novelty, not intrinsic value but marketing, not product but packaging.”
Here are a few choice quotes from it:
“Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.”
“Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.”
The field manual is filled with this kind of cheap inscrutability, dappled with contingent modifiers that dress its fortune-cookie pronouncements in a sheen of plausible deniability. The point is, COIN was a failure. It didn’t work in Iraq, where Petraeus first tried to “implement” it, and it certainly didn’t work in Afghanistan, where we currently still have troops deployed.
In the dolly zoom of this episode, Bergdahl is the subject of the focus and COIN is the shifting background. Bergdahl’s frustration with the mission wasn’t entirely misplaced. In a war of necessity it probably wouldn’t matter as much that a unit stuck outside the wire didn’t shave or that they had to momentarily downgrade their gear to build up an OP. But COIN demanded that they play the schizophrenic role of being warriors, people trained to be “close with and destroy the enemy” — at once getting yelled at for their appearance and handing out watercolor paintings of Afghanistan to locals in order to win them over. COIN is frustrating because it’s stupid and it doesn’t work.
The episode ends with former CIA agent Bill Murray (there’s an obligatory Stripes joke) sending a memo in 2009 to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that said, “We are literally fighting the people. They think we are fighting Islam … It is a failed mission … I don’t see how to make this work.” He suggested that Americans abandon COIN and that, instead of telling the Afghan people that we’re there to give them a democracy, which they don’t care about anyway, we should just tell them we’re there to kill bin Laden and that we’ll leave when he’s dead.
Of course, these are thoughts that many veterans have. We even had them while we were downrange. I remember the frustration of the “Sunni Uprising” during my first deployment, knowing that we were paying people to not kill us, or the interminable ouroboros of patrol logic during my deployment to the Diyala Province: We continue to patrol to keep insurgents from placing IEDs along the roads that we continue to patrol. I eventually ran over two Soviet landmines stacked on top of one another. So I get Bergdahl’s frustration with the higher-ups. But it still doesn’t explain why the fuck he walked off post.