A slightly insane idea, borne out of delusions of grandeur; a deeply dangerous test of skill with the possibility to go seriously wrong. That’s the subject of the second season of Serial, which takes on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the American solider who walked off his tiny outpost in Afghanistan one day in 2009, he says, to draw attention to the poor leadership there, and also to see if he had what it took to trek through the wilderness by himself.
But then, that description also applies to Serial itself, starting its second season in the long shadow of its own success. Serial was not just a popular show, though of course it was that: final estimates say it had around five million total listeners, with each episode downloaded about 1.5 million times. But more than that, it popularized a whole new kind of media: podcasting. One of the ironies there is that podcasting wasn’t really new at all, WNYC had been producing podcasts for a decade by the time Serial made its first show. But the medium seemed destined to stumble along at a lower level of popularity, basically forever. When I covered a podcasting convention just a few years ago, the attendees acted like they were into something shameful, saying things to me like, “No one listens to podcasts because they’re happy.”
And then Serial came along and blew the whole thing up, making everyone from your mom to all of New York’s media executives into rabid podcasting fans. Sarah Koenig and her team are at the level of Les Paul or the Lumière brothers–the face of their medium. And now, they have to do it all over again.
So, how’s it going?
Part of the appeal of Serial’s first season was its lurid true crime story of drugs, teenage lust, and murder. It was, in the truest sense, a mystery—a real who-has-done-it. At its worst, it was like a hipster 20/20, but at its best it was an engrossing, surprising story that encompassed all of human nature.
The Bergdahl case is different. Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban not long after walking off his base in 2009; as we hear in the first episode, his capture took place just a few hours later. He was relatively unknown until his release, five years later, when President Obama stood next to Bergdahl’s parents in the White House Rose Garden, making what I’m sure he assumed would be a happy announcement.
It was not that simple. Almost immediately, conservative media began issuing questions that weren’t simple to answer, despite the obvious partisan reasons they were being asked. Why had he been off the base in the first place? Had he been collaborating with the Taliban in some way? Was it right of Obama to release Taliban prisoners in exchange for someone with such a questionable background? How much responsibility did Bergdahl have for the servicemen who’d been killed looking for him, and of what crimes might he be guilty? One reason it was so easy for these questions to fester was that Bergdahl himself never spoke to the media.
Until now, of course. While interviews with him make up most of the show’s first episode, he’s not exactly talking to Serial. In fact, he’d been talking with Mark Boal, the writer and producer behind true (or at least true-ish) military stories like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Boal had conducted about 25 hours of interviews with Bergdahl as research for a film about his ordeal, still in the works. Koenig had been approached with this audio by Hugo Lindren, also involved in the film’s production (in one sense, the entire season of this show, then, is a corporate partnership and extended ad for an upcoming film). The audio we’re hearing wasn’t recorded for broadcast, and Koenig seems anxious to apologize for it in advance. What we hear is informal, conversational, and a bit ragged: pure Serial, in other words.
In this episode, titled “DUSTWUN,” we find out Berghdal’s version of why he walked off of his base. DUSTWUN (pronounced “Dust One”) is a military radio code that’s an acronym for Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown. It’s issued when a solider goes missing. Bergdahl said he intentionally wanted to cause a DUSTWUN in order to draw attention to the conditions in his unit and at his outpost in Afghanistan, OP Mest. It’s described as “a scrubby, rocky field the size of a few football fields” at the intersection of a few important roads. Their job, basically, was to sit there in case something happened (which it usually didn’t). The soldiers had to burn their garbage in a hole they called “the pit of Hell,” and go to the bathroom in a bucket which they also burned, while an unlucky soldier stirred the contents with a stick that slowly disintegrated until he was basically hovering with his face in the fumes. Koenig interviews one soldier, Ben Evans, who just drove by the base, but said it gave him chills. “Wow, that place sucks,” he says he thought. Another, John Thurman, called it, “The worst place humanly imaginable.”
We’re never told exactly what Bergdahl’s specific complaints were, but these poor conditions are supposed to communicate some of that —though one might guess poor, desert conditions were be to be expected while serving in Afghanistan.
There was another, to me more believable set of motivations: to prove he could do it. “I was trying to prove that I was capable of being that person,” he said. “Like, doing what I did was me saying that I am, like, I dunno, Jason Borne. I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing. That I could be what it is that all those guys out there who go to the movies and watch those movies–they all wanna be that. I wanted to prove that I was that.”
But Bergdahl wasn’t just planning to slip off for a little bit, make everyone worried, and then come back, like a toddler. He was going to walk about 20 miles through the desert and mountains to another base. He thought this would take about 24 hours.
He sent his sensitive materials home, left most of his identifying materials in his tent, and slipped out. He had mapped out his route so that he’d be traveling through the most exposed areas in total darkness, but he almost immediately got lost. Once he got back on track, the sun was coming up and he was walking through open desert. After a while, six men on motorcycles with machine guns spotted him and took him into custody. He says he didn’t resist. There’s something ironic in someone out to prove they’re a supersoldier not attempting to fight a small group of men, but I don’t think I would have done anything differently (except not join the army in the first place).
In the meantime, the other half of his plan was working–everyone in his unit was frantically searching for him, with no idea what could have happened to him.
And that’s where the curtain falls on episode one, save for one tantalizing tease. Next time, we get to hear the Taliban’s side of the story. And in the little snippet of audio we hear, the Taliban sounds super nice! We’ll find out more next time.