Serial season 2 premiered December 10, 2015. This season is focused on Bowe Bergdahl and his disappearance from his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, subsequent capture by the Taliban, his release five years later, and the events after. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on each episode as they are released. I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section and spread the word for others to join the discussion as well. If you haven’t read the previous discussion posts you can find them here.
Back to Bowe
We’re brought back to focus on Bergdahl this episode, specifically what his first year in captivity was like. The thing that sticks out to me the most is how calm and direct Bergdahl is when talking to Boal about some rather horrific conditions that border on torture. I’m not sure if Boal asks specifically about his demeanor but Bergdahl describes himself as numb to the whole situation which makes it easy to discuss. My initial reaction is to think “liar!” but disassociation is a common coping strategy of people who have experienced an incredibly traumatic event. And what Bergdahl experienced wasn’t anything less than traumatic.
In the previous episode, Bergdahl describes being blindfolded and stoned upon his initial capture. In this episode, he explains he was chained to a bed for three months. He was blindfolded almost all day every day for those three months. He was denied food and water on a consistent and regular basis, essentially depriving his mind of a way to tell time in addition to wondering if he was ever going to be fed again. His heath began to fail, he developed bed sores, his muscles began to atrophy causing his captors to adjust his shackles to allow him to sit. He attempted an escape in his initial detainment and once recaptured was beaten with a rubber hose twice in two days as punishment. He was repeatedly shown execution films. He was left alone for the majority of his time.
When he was subjected to human interaction, it wasn’t positive. His guards, mostly young Taliban soldiers, were bored and used their time to torment him. They would throw things, jokingly point their weapons at him. He says he needed to make peace with the idea that he was always going to be the butt of the joke, even if he couldn’t always understand what they were saying. When he does speak with people who speak English, he’s demanded to perform, mostly for proof of life videos and interrogations.
The “bookend”, as Sarah refers to it, to this first year in captivity is an escape that Bergdahl says lasted about nine days. The Taliban says it happened but it was more like two or three days. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Bergdahl explains he was moved to a cell in a turret-like part of a “fortress”. It was roughly two stories up and was so old the window had no bars or glass. He tells Boal that he had squirreled away small items that helped him escape – an eight inch PVC pipe, a nail, and a key. He says he practiced getting out of his shackles and learned when the best time to escape would be. When he finals puts his plan in action, he uses his chains and bed sheets to climb down the fifteen feet to the ground. He then went on the run but suffered severe injuries when he claims he fell off of a cliff. All he could do was hide in hand dug holes during the day and crawl or hobble around at night. He was ultimately recaptured and punished by having his hair and beard pulled out.
It’s difficult not to feel sympathetic towards any person subjected to the kind of treatment Bergdahl says he went through. The recommendation from Lt. Col. Visger immediately sprang to mind after listening to Bergdahl’s account;’the recommendation that “confinement would be inappropriate”. I can’t imagine being locked in a jail cell after being subjected to the “torture, abuse, and neglect” that Bergdahl claims. And I don’t really doubt that most of what he says the Taliban did to him. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a not so small part of me thought “What did you think was going to happen?” I also can’t help but doubt all the details of his captivity and his escape story. It sound almost fantastical, Jason Bourne-like. He says he’s taking in details, even when blindfolded because he wanted to bring back useful information when he escaped. He also talks about how he behaved in the videos he was cooperating just enough to get by but he was deliberating messing things up to send messages to the Army.
I’m at a real loss for what Sarah’s angle is this season. Is she trying to pull a bait and switch? Makes us feel bad for Bergdahl and then disclose some colossal piece of information that blows our sympathy to pieces? The talk of that zoom out really wasn’t there this episode. I can’t imagine she’s going to simply give us a play-by-play, if that’s was the case it would make the podcast no different than reading the previously published articles on Bergdahl.
I came across a transcript of the September 2015 pretrial hearing that results in Lt. Col. Visger recommending lesser chargers. It’s a lengthy but interesting read. Page 250 begins testimony from a member of the medical team that has treated Bergdahl since his return. The testimony details his injuries and its effects. Later on in the testimony you can read about professional opinions on if and/or how Bergdahl upheld the Code of Conduct, which is at the center of the Misbehavior In Front of the Enemy charge.