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.
This has been the episode I’ve waited for all season. This episode was so reminiscent of season one. Sarah did away with a lot of the geopolitical information she’s been focusing on and got back to the heart of the story…Bowe Bergdahl and his battalion and it did not disappoint.
“Go Back to the Beginning”
When we heard Bergdahl explaining to Mark why his statement to General Dahl was three hundred eighty-some pages, this is how he justified it. I gave it a healthy eye roll. I thought “here we go”, we’re going to get some self-serving, protracting excuse. He explained that his decision to create the DUSTWUN wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. He had said that from the beginning and for anyone, including myself, who doubted that I think three hundred eighty-some pages of a statement is reason enough to believe that his decision was the result of a massive build up and not a split second decision.
Early in this season, Sarah briefly touched upon the notion that Bergdahl’s personal background is going to play a part in his motiviations but she didn’t get to that in episode 6. It sounds like that will all be addressed in episode 7. In this episode, she put all of her focus on his military persona. She heard from several of his platoon members who said he was a great soldier. He was the soldier every squad leader wanted. He upheld standards, was always on time, kept his equipment in good order, did his duties and then helped others. Bergdahl was said to be aiming for Special Forces so he studied military materials and languages in his down time. He was no slouch when it came to being a soldier.
The Issue With Leadership
Bergdahl begins to explain his distrust with leadership by providing an example of the type of leadership he preferred. Apparently, there was a senior drill instructor who oversaw Bergdahl’s basic training in Fort Bening. If you asked Bergdahl, he’d tell you this D.I. was the standard to which every leader should be held. He goes on to say that as his time in the Army progresses, which only includes AIT and his first assignment at Ft. Richardson, AK, he grows disenchanted. He can find no other leaders that can measure up to this D.I.
Before ever setting foot in Afghanistan, Bergdahl runs into a lot of communication issues with his battalion. Soldiers describe him as not being able to shoot the shit with them and Bergdahl declining to take part in the “grab ass” games that go on when the soldiers have down time. In essence it sounds like he has a difficult time bonding with the other soldiers and for lack of a better word, assimilating into the group. He mentions that he keeps to himself because it’s the easiest way not to rock the boat but when you’re in a group that relies on the trust of all its members, not bonding can be a detriment.
We hear from both Bergdahl and CSM Wolfe about a pep talk that Wolfe gave during an inspection prior to deployment. There was a part of the speech where Wolfe said the battalion would not be going over to Afghanistan to “rape, kill, pillage, and burn; even though that’s why you signed up”. Even though I’m not there, I understand that this is a joke. These are infantrymen, they are trained to do the dirty work. With their new COIN assignment, they will need to win the hearts and mind. Understanding this juxtaposition makes the joke, while a little off color for civilians, obvious to most people. For some reason Bergdahl either doesn’t get the joke or can’t appreciate the humor CSM Wolfe is attempting to pass on to his troops.
Bergdahl holds on to a lot of things. After returning from a disaster of a mission that left him and his fellow soldiers stranded on a mountain in a less than friendly town for six days, the battalion commander Lt. Col. Baker is said to have made a remark to the platoon sergeant upon his the platoon’s return to the effect of “what you couldn’t shave?” Bergdahl admits he hears this second hand so all nuance is lost and whether this was made as a poor attempt at a joke or an actual dressing down, the soldiers don’t take kindly to it but they get their own dig in and move on; Bergdahl on the other hand seems to file it away and adds it to his growing pile of “evidence” that his leadership is poor.
The final straw for Bergdahl comes after another dressing down comes from Lt. Col. Baker and CSM Wolfe. Bergdahl and several other soldiers were photographed out of proper uniform. These soldiers were assigned with digging a fox hole in the middle of the day in Afghanistan so it’s obviously very hot and with all their gear on, it could turn into a dangerous situation. They were given the okay to step out of uniform just long enough to complete the fox hole as quickly as possible. For some reason, they either took a break or didn’t get back into proper uniform (blouse, armor vest, helmet) immediately after they were finished and the photographer took their pictures and published it. Baker and Wolfe torn into these soldiers because they felt that this small lack of discipline was a slippery slope to start down, especially so early in a deployment. Wolfe’s major concern, and it was something I thought of as well, is that no one has body armor or a helmet on. Sure, you want to take off your long sleeve blouse to dig in the heat…go for it…but when you’re in enemy territory, it seems like common sense to keep wearing the things that may in fact save your life. Bergdahl was so put off by this incident, he felt that Baker was willing to put those soldiers who embarrassed him intentionally into harm’s way, a suicide mission if you will, and that’s when he decided to walk off.
And That’s Where He Lost Me
Up until this point, I felt for Bergdahl and his platoon mates. Everyone has had a shitty boss at least once in their lives. Tim has definitely had some leadership that leaves a lot to be desired but like an adult you do the best you can with what you have and look out for the people around you. That’s what everyone else in the battalion decided to do…everyone except Bergdahl. He felt that he was the only one who cared enough for the other soldiers to do something about it. He describes himself as a logical person but he makes the drastic leap from “my guys need help” to “I’m going to run off post and call everyone’s attention to Baker’s lack of concern for his soldiers.” Uh uh, no way, no how, would anyone logically see that connection. You are a grown adult serving in the United States Army, you are expected to follow orders, which includes staying on post when not on a mission. Bergdahl repeats his concerns for his fellow soldiers’ safety but fails to see how his actions could potentially put those same people in harms way; which they ultimately did after the DUSTWUN.
Sarah Got Me
All season, I’ve been griping about the lack of sizzle, the lack of sexy story telling that we received from Sarah & company in season one. It’s been slow going, with a lot of details that didn’t seem to lead up to a larger and more interesting narrative…until now. I really started to empathy with Bergdahl, especially last episode. It was as if no one cared about his plight. But I’m back to my original feelings that he did this to himself, that his actions were stupid and I’m not entirely convinced that they weren’t selfish or delusional. I have a feeling with the next episode, I’ll have a better grip on whether he thinks he’s a badass or if he’s out of touch with reality. Next time…on Serial.