Once, when I was in high school, my parents caught me smoking pot. In a heated argument with them, I said, “Look! I get straight As. I’m president of the student body. I got 5s on all my AP tests. Obviously it’s not doing anything bad! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”
I bring this up not only to brag about my AP scores (though definitely that is part of the reason), but also to say that, like me, a petulant overachieving only child, Serial does whatever it wants! It’s been the number one podcast since literally the day this season premiered, and is what the iTunes charts call a “no-mover.” It’s stayed put at #1, forever! So what if it wants to go from weekly to bi-weekly, then add a few mini episodes on a totally different topic, then abandon them before the thing they’re covering is actually resolved, and then inexplicably release two short episodes one week instead of one normal-sized one (the newest development, this week)? IT’S NUMBER ONE! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM IT??
So, in today’s short episode, we look closer at Bowe Bergdahl’s decision to walk off his base in Afghanistan. Why did he really do it?
First we hear from his fellow soldiers, who all show absolutely soul-crushing amounts of groupthink and jingoism. They all suspect he was sneaking off to join the Taliban. Their evidence?
- He liked drinking tea with the Afghans
- He was late for patrol once, and they found him having tea with the Afghans
- Two Afghan police officers went missing from the base when he did—because they were helping him join the Taliban (no police officers, in fact, went missing)
Also, some of them remember a story he told late one night during a conversation he did not start about how one would fake one’s own death. Everyone had their own ideas (jump off a cliff, being one). When it was Bergdahl’s turn, he said it would be easy to pretend to be killed or captured while in Afghanistan. Then, we hear, he told a bizarre story about how he’d smuggle himself to India, join a gang of mercenaries, work his way up, kill the leader, and then somehow parlay that into a spot in the Russian mafia. Obviously, his brothers in arms say, this is what he left to do.
“It’s like if an ice cream truck drove by, and someone said ‘I’d like some ice cream,’ and then they were gone,” Koenig quotes one of his friends as saying. “You’re gonna figure they went after the ice cream truck.”
There’s one more reason, which I found the most depressing. “Where are you gonna go? There’s no other option: our side, or the Taliban,” one soldier said, referring to Afghanistan, a country of 32 million people. Sure! Lol, nowhere else to go, no other people than the enemy. That is definitely not a problematic way for our military to view a country of 32 million people where they are fighting a small group of religious fanatics, definitely not.
In the second half of the episode, we get to some truly interesting and insightful stuff about Bergdahl’s background that’s honestly incredibly illuminating. He didn’t get along with his family as a child, who homeschooled him. By the time he was a teenager, he’d had very little contact with other people, and seemed to have difficulty relating to others. Then, he fell in with a relatively more normal family, who took him to stage combat lessons. This is the family of Kim, who you’ll remember tried to get Interpol to investigate his disappearance.
Through Kim and her daughter, Mikaela, we hear that Bergdahl had a bunch of qualities that make his story that he walked off the base to both test himself and stop what he saw as an injustice pretty likely. First, since he hadn’t had a lot of contact with basically anyone, he lacked the sort of normal coping skills that allow you to see something terrible on the news, sigh, and move on with your life. We learn that he felt like if there was a problem in the world that you knew about and you weren’t doing anything about it, it made you a terrible person. He simply couldn’t understand how everyone else didn’t feel that way. They characterize him as having “the least flexible system ever.”
Secondly, he had a long, long history of submitting himself to punishing and wildly misguided programs of betterment. He used to punch rocks to toughen up his hands. He went to Alaska to be a fisherman. He went to France to try to join the French Foreign Legion. Essentially, though he was by then in his early 20s, he approached the world without any understanding of what might be realistic, and what might be fantasy.
Crucially, we learn in this episode that Bergdahl joined the military before his stint in the Army. On Kim’s advice, he joined the Coast Guard, but was unable to handle basic training. He sent Kim an increasingly unhinged series of letters, until one day he simply showed back up at their house. Everyone was astonished, and asked what happened. He said he’d gotten a psychological discharge, which he said he basically faked.
In reality, he was found on the floor of his barracks one moring, shaking, crying and covered in his own blood. After an evaluation, he was determined to be suffering from acute depression and anxiety, and was discharged.
So, the question becomes, how and why was he ever let back into the armed forces? Because of the kind of discharge he received, Bergdahl’s file had a code saying he needed a waiver to be allowed to re-enlist. Bergdahl happened to re-enlist in 2008, a time the military was particularly hungry for new recruits. You may remember news stories from this time about the military’s desperate recruiting shortfalls, and its move to allow ex-cons and high school dropouts to join. All Bergdahl had to do to get back in was write a short paragraph explaining his discharge, which he did without outright lying. It’s unclear if anyone ever read it.
Mikaela says when she and her mother found out, they were in disbelief. The military had literally broken him just with training. She says they remember thinking, “This is a really bad idea. Like, the worst idea ever.”
But he was back in. In tomorrow’s episode, we look at whether the Army should have let him in.