If you’ve been listening to the “Serial” podcast’s coverage of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s ordeal, you’ve probably learned a colossal amount of new facts, previously unmentioned by the press. The series goes to great pains to highlight all of the nuances of the situation, and gives you firsthand accounts of the situation from the point of view of Bergdahl himself. The show’s narrator, Sarah Koenig, even manages to call the Taliban (which isn’t actually that hard) to get their side of the story.
The series is full of shocking moments, sure to tug at the consciences of even the most stubborn Bergdahl haters. The show wants you to think one thing: Bowe Bergdahl’s story is much worse than you previously thought.
That Bergdahl deserted isn’t contested. He admits to walking away from his combat outpost on the night of June 30, 2009, in order to teach the Army a lesson. Accounts vary about his actions immediately before he disappeared, but that he neatly stacked his gear and walked off his post carrying only a knife and a compass is also uncontested.
In recorded conversations with propaganda filmmaker Mark Boal, Bergdahl says he felt his peers were “in danger of something seriously going wrong” because of systemic leadership failures. Bergdahl says he had observed these failures since boot camp, in more places than just his command, and that he was willing to “rot in Leavenworth” rather than see one of his buddies die.
Bergdahl Deserted Because He Didn’t Like Being a Soldier
The program goes to great lengths to stress how bad things were for poor Bergdahl. He only ate MRE’s, had to urinate in a tube, showered infrequently at best, and was constantly exposed to the fumes of burning garbage and feces. Koenig paints a bleak picture of Bergdahl’s Army life in Afghanistan, and wants us to believe he had it really bad.
What she fails to mention is that basically everyone doing the job of an infantryman in Afghanistan had it just as bad. You can believe me on this point, because I spent eight months deployed with a Marine infantry battalion in Helmand Province during the height of the surge. While I enjoyed the relative comfort of being a battalion staff officer, most of our Marines lived in the same squalor Koenig describes in her podcast. Everyone urinated in a tube and lived with the constant stench of burning garbage.
I had it better than most, and can recall one occasion where I was so sick to my stomach, I actually thought dying might be a better option than trying to recover. And bad leadership was everywhere. My own company commander was such a failure, the battalion leadership nicknamed him “Bubbles.” Tens of thousands of young Americans have lived in these abject conditions during the last ten years of warfare, and not a single one ever decided to bite his or her thumb at command by walking away—except for Bowe Bergdahl.
While the only publicly available account of his ordeals is his own retelling, we can all be pretty sure the Taliban didn’t put him up in the Holiday Inn. Koenig devotes two full episodes to helping us understand just how bad Bergdahl had it from his captors. He was cut with razors, beaten regularly, forcefully shaved, starved, and chained to a bed for months. If you think I’m being glib about the torment, please forgive me. I’m not. But Koenig and “Serial” miss the point that Bergdahl knew about the possibility of all of this before he walked away, and this missing distinction makes all the difference.
Every Recruit Knows This Could Happen
Bergdahl voluntarily joined the Army. He tried joining the Coast Guard first, but was discharged after only 26 days of introductory training (insert joke of your choosing about how easy Coast Guard boot camp is) because of some sort of psychological defect. Whether he or the Army is to blame for his second enlistment is the topic of another article, but it need not be stated that no one forced him to sign on the dotted line a second time. Bergdahl knew he had problems with military life and willingly signed up a second time.
Part of every service’s introductory training is a period of instruction about the Code of Conduct for prisoners of war, which is usually accompanied with all kinds of stories about how bad you’ll have it when you get caught—or at least that’s what everyone I’ve ever known who served in the military told me he or she was taught.
The Code of Conduct is clear, and designed for even the dumbest servicemen: the only information you’re allowed to give out is your name, rank, and serial number. You are wholly forbidden from making any kind of statement that will endanger the lives of other American servicemen. At all. Period.
So in episode three of her podcast, when Koenig says the government doesn’t really have that strict an interpretation of Code, she may be making a legal point, but she definitely isn’t making a practical one. Regardless of what standard a serviceman may be held to, it’s made eminently clear at boot camp that you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut, even if it means taking a bullet. Instructors point to the men of the Hanoi Hotel as an example.
Admiral Stockdale beat himself in the face with a stool to prevent his captors from using him as propaganda, but Koenig wants us to let Bergdahl off the hook because, well, survival. Again, Koenig and “Serial” miss the point. When you join the military, you agree that you’re willing to die for your country. Surviving comes second to carrying out the oath you swore.
For some men, this is asking too much. Accordingly, the military has a streamlined process for letting conscious objectors out of their obligation. Bergdahl would have known this bit, too. Aside from some obscene Army conspiracy, there is no proof Bergdahl ever identified himself as a conscientious objector or asked to be released from his obligation on moral grounds.
Bergdahl Admits We Can’t Trust Him
But were his statements while in captivity really that bad? Yes, they were. Bergdahl said all kinds of things that are obviously injurious to his peers: soldiers are told to accept civilian casualties as a just a normal part of war; his commanders ordered him to gain information “by whatever means necessary” and “there are no rules.” He said the “death toll” from the war is much higher than anyone will admit, and so on.
In his interview with Boal, Bergdahl claims he made up obvious lies so his confreres would realize how ridiculous the whole thing was, and that he couldn’t possibly be serious about any of what he was saying. But the truth value of his statements is precisely beside the point. True or not, his misconduct materially affected the safety of everyone in his unit, and arguably everyone in Afghanistan.
So why is it such a big deal the guy lied a little bit to save his own skin? Because now we have no guarantee that anything he says is true at all. Consider it this way: if the man’s loyalties were so thin that he was willing to walk away into Talibanlandia without a weapon, then say whatever he had to in order to survive, what guarantee do we have that he’s not doing it again with his new captors?
The podcast has a number of startling quotes from its protagonist. At one point, Bergdahl claims he was walking along “taking it slow and easy and I fell off a cliff.” He fell off a cliff? How does one just suddenly walk off a cliff? There are moments where hardly anything he says at all is believable. Bergdahl claims he was apprehended by a gang of goons on motorcycles, but didn’t put up a fight because of their superior numbers. The Taliban says they found him when he was looking for someone who spoke English, and he then tried to defend himself with karate. But this doesn’t bother Koenig. She’s content to have us all believe Bergdahl is telling the truth because, well, why wouldn’t he?
Bergdahl Endangered American Lives
“Serial” conveniently fails to note that the local improvised explosive device (IED) tactics changed after his disappearance, and that his unit began to be attacked at night, a practice the Taliban had previously not used. While Koenig mentions the six deaths that occurred during the manhunt to find Bergdahl, she doesn’t mention the civilian casualties during failed Special Forces night raids looking for him.
She doesn’t mention the Army cover-up of the reasons behind a lieutenant’s death by rocket-propelled grenade while looking for Bergdahl. She also doesn’t mention an alternate deal that would have not only recovered Bergdahl, but several other captives—to include a woman and a baby—and would have only cost one Taliban commander, instead of five.
The saddest part of the whole thing is that, thanks to “Serial,” we may never really know what happened. The program is so bad that people like me feel compelled to write articles like this, which only serve to further convolute the mess surrounding the facts of the case.
So why did Koenig take on Bergdahl’s case if it was such a dumpster fire? Aside from the obvious pecuniary gain, one has to wonder if Koenig isn’t doing an inside job. Bowe’s father, Robert Bergdahl, flung egg all over the president’s face in that Rose Garden rescue announcement when he started blabbering in Pashto.
Bergdahl’s platoon mates then went on cable news and told America Bergdahl wasn’t “left behind” but rather walked away, crushing the narrative the president had implicitly relied on when taking his victory lap. The public outrage that followed was so intense, it caused Obama to trot out his favorite lap dog, Susan Rice, who went on Sunday morning shows to say Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.” To suppose the administration thinks it could put some concealer on this black eye by getting Koenig and Boal to publish interviews with him isn’t unreasonable.
Remember that bit where Bergdahl says he was willing to rot in Leavenworth for his desertion if it would save the lives of even one of his buddies? Considering his actions had the opposite effect, maybe we should take him up on his offer. Sarah Koenig and “Serial” certainly haven’t helped him.