Another day, another episode of America’s favorite “week by week, day by day, eh, whatever” podcast, as Sarah Koenig says in the intro. Today’s episode is officially episode 8 but also “Hindsight, Part 2” (“Hindsight, Part 1” being yesterday’s Episode 7). Both yesterday and today’s eps went live at 5:30 AM, and one wonders if they couldn’t have just released one if they’d put it out at 3 PM or something. I guess the Serial team really cares about some deadlines, if not all of them.
On yesterday’s episode, and in the intro to today’s, Koenig explicitly says this episode will be all about one thing: was the Army right to accept Bowe Bergdahl? You’ll remember that he’d been separated from the Coast Guard for having a mental breakdown during basic training before even enlisting in the Army. However, as always with Serial, we can’t stay on one topic too long, and really this is only the topic of about half the episode. Still – was it?
One thing Sarah Koenig is carefully to always say, but never really explains, is that Bergdahl was separated from the armed forces, not discharged. What does that actually mean? To Wikipedia!
In the U.S. armed forces, separation means that a person is leaving active duty, but not necessarily leaving the service entirely. Separation typically occurs when someone reaches the date of their Expiration of Term of Service (ETS) and are released from active duty, but still must complete their military reserve obligations. Upon separation, they receive form DD214, which indicates their former and future status.
So, usually a separation occurs when you just finish your tour of duty and don’t re-enlist. However, there’s also something called Entry Level Separation, which I learned about from GIRightsOnline.org. You’re eligible for it if, during your first six months in the military, you show “Inaptitude, failure to adapt to the military environment, failure to progress satisfactorily in a required training program, lack of effort, psychological or stress-related symptoms.” Sounds like being found on the floor of your bunk sobbing and covered in your own blood, all right! Crucially, though, you’re allowed to re-enlist simply by explaining the situation to your recruiter.
Now, if that meeting was happening at peacetime, or during budget cutbacks, or during any other time when the military is otherwise able to carefully consider its applicants, that might be something of a difficult conversation. If, however, that conversation is happening while the US is simultaneously fighting two of the longest wars in its history and is so hard up for soldiers that it’s literally accepting “sex offenders, people convicted of making terrorist threats, and child abusers” (per the Guardian), it might go a little easier. Sarah Koenig does her typical thing of trying to turn something with a pretty simple explanation into a “mystery” she can “investigate,” and interviews two experts on army pre-entry psychological evaluations. One of them says Bergdahl’s case is totally normal, while the other says that Someone Dropped The Ball and It Is Totally Inappropriate. Guess which one we hear from at length! And, anyway, we hear that Bergdahl did amazingly well in Army basic training, so nobody really thought about this (like way back in episode one when we heard he was a model soldier).
Honestly that’s pretty much that on this topic.
Then we move into what Koenig seems to consider the “did Adnan do it” of this season: Is Bergdahl telling the truth about the reasons he deserted his base? Was he embarking on some bizarre test of personal ability or just trying to quit the army, which he didn’t like?
We hear some illuminating tape of his conversations with filmmaker Mark Boal (who’s in the news today for getting more access to the CIA than terrorism detainee lawyers). Bergdahl basically cops to living in a fantasy world before joining the army. As a child, he studied military handbooks from the 19th and early 20th Century. He thought being in the Army would be like some fantasy version of antique soldiering. Koenig kind of lets him get away with saying he wanted to be a solider “back then” when people fought honorably for things in which they believed, when in reality being a soldier has always sucked and many people would have rather not been in the military, but had no choice. In further evidence that he lived in a borderline psychotic fantasy world, we hear that Bergdahl wanted to be a kung fu warrior or a samurai, and was in love with the idea of going into battle with “just your hands.” Put on top of this an apparently real, deeply held belief in the honor of the military and an intense paranoia (established earlier in the ep, sorry for not mentioning!), and you’ve got a guy ready to do something crazy.
After all this, we get an exchange between Koenig and Boal where Boal says that he believes that, no matter what Bergdahl particularly says, it was this crazy sense of honor and justice and his desire to prove himself to be some kind of supersoldier that led him off his base.
Then, we hear Koenig offer one of her trademark “Wellllllllll! I dunno. . . “
“Here’s where Mark and I diverge a little,” she says. “He links Bowe’s personal experience more directly to the problems of the war than I do. He wants to be careful to separate what Bowe’s saying from who Bowe is. In a case like this, though, that’s the rub.”
I’m not 100 percent sure what she’s saying. Because it seems like she’s saying that she refuses to use any human insight into this person obtained through months and months of reporting to gain a deeper understanding of his actions than the literal words that come out of his mouth. And that is . . . troubling.
But, finally, at the end of this episode, we hear who the real culprit is in all this, and at whose feet all responsibility can be laid. It’s a familiar villain.
Why did a troubled loner take insane actions against his society that put everyone at risk? WHO ELSE, AYN FUCKING RAND.
As it turns out, Bowe Bergdahl’s last communication to the world before walking off of his base was a long, terminally self-serious email with the subject, “Who is John Galt?” Libertarians and solipsists of all stripes will recognize that as the first line of Rand’s objectivist railroad tycoon slashfic masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. Bergdahl, as it turns out, was a big fan.
“You can grab almost any sentence from [the book] and apply it to what Bowe ended up doing,” Koenig says. “For instance, ‘A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.’” She reads us a bit from that email of his: “It is not the being of value that fails the system, it is the system that fails the man. For man should not stoop to fit the system, but the system should be made and remade to fit the man who holds value as worth. I will serve no bandit nor liar, for I know John Galt and understand. This life is too short to serve those who compromise value and its ethics. I am done compromising.”
And so we learn that Bergdahl’s life is yet one more held in thrall by that chainsmoking Russian temptress. I hope one day he finds company with Alan Greenspan and John Hodgman in their complete devotion to a philosophy that boils down to the sort of drivel people love to make fun of preschools for teaching our coddled millennials: You’re special, no one else understands you, and you deserve everything in the world.
When he sent home a box of his most precious possessions—his laptop and his journal, among them—he also included a copy of Atlas Shrugged.
Next week, we’re looking at the US effort to rescue Bergdahl (again), as this part of the mystery is more or less wrapped up.