“Serial” Episodes 7 & 8 – Oh, Bowe

bergdahluniform

The Serial podcast released its latest chapter”Hindsight” as two short episodes that combine for one extra-long podcast. These episodes go deep into Bowe Bergdahl’s background in an attempt to explain why he walked off from OP Mest.

Producer Sarah Koenig and screenwriter Mark Boal (whose recorded interviews with Bergdahl form the audio backbone of the series) have both decided that Bergdahl isn’t a deserter because he didn’t abandon his post to avoid danger. Both buy into the notion that the soldier took off for FOB Sharana to alert superior officers to what he perceived as dangers to his fellow troops. Koenig pretty has pretty much decided those fears are delusional. Boal tries to symypathize, identifying real issues that could be debated but, in the end, admits that those weren’t the reasons Bergdahl went on his made-up mission.

What are the major factors that led to Bowe’s decision take off? Serial suggests home schooling, Ayn Rand and one giant red flag: Bergdahl had been previously separated from the Coast Guard after washing out of basic training: there’s an argument that he should never have been accepted into the Army.

“Hindsight, Part 1” first floats the notion that Bergdahl wasn’t a “normal” deserter by establishing that he didn’t pack like a deserter: he shipped personal effects back friends in the States (like he believed he would be sent home after making his report) and certainly didn’t take the provisions needed for a long-term escape. Evidence suggests he was trying to get to FOB Sharana, no matter how ridiculous that may sound.

The episode also explores Bowe’s childhood in Idaho. Bowe grew up a loner with few friends. Most of his understanding of the world came from books. There’s an implied caution about home-schooling here: Bergdahl was ill-prepared for the kind of everyday compromises and acceptance of flaws in the system that most of us had learned by the end of 2nd grade. When he encountered the kind of daily struggle and inefficiency baked into military service, he freaked out that the reality of being a solider didn’t match his idealistic fantasy. It turns out that fighting over blocks in kindergarten would’ve done this guy some good.

Bergdahl made some friends in his teenage years, working at a coffee shop in Ketchum. Everyone talks about how sweet and idealistic he was. He ran off to France, where he may or may not have tried to join the French Foreign Legion. He came back, joined the Coast Guard at a friend’s suggestion and washed out after a few weeks, diagnosed with “adjustment order with depression” after being found with a nosebleed and curled into a ball on the barracks floor.

“Hindsight, Part 2” looks into why Bergdahl was allow to enlist in the Army without the doctor’s waiver that should have been required after his separation from the Coast Guard. Koenig interviews former Army psychiatrist Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, who asserts that Bergdahl’s waiver wasn’t uncommon, especially since his enlistment came at the time of the surge. And Bergdahl excelled in Army basic training, suggesting that he was fit for service.

Dr Michael Valdovinos, who worked with Bergdahl to help reintegrate him after his release, disagrees. He thinks the Army recruiter should have explored Bergdahl’s separation from the Coast Guard and that there should have been enough red flags for disqualify him from service.

Bowe was a self-taught student of military history and a big fan of the Bushido code. He told Boal that he was a big fan of historical military figures and he ran into problems because he had to be a “modern soldier.” He really did walk off base to raise awareness of the military’s failure to live up to its ideals.

One incident of note: squad leader Greg Leatherman noticed that Bergdahl was having trouble adjusting to deployment and says he raised the issue with First Sergeant Pablo Jimenez, who told Leatherman “shut the f**k up, no one needs to hear what a fucking E-5 has to say about a guy in my company.” Serial notes that Jimenez denies the conversation ever took place.

Right before he walked off, Bergdahl sent a group email to friends back home with the subject line “Who is John Galt?” Which leads us to the classic situation where an immature, unsocialized loner discovers Ayn Rand. “I will serve no bandit nor liar for I know John Galt and understand,” wrote Bowe in a long dissertation about what he’d learned from Atlas Shrugged. (Apologies that we didn’t include a trigger warning for those of you who’ve spent those long nights in the rack listening to a guy who just discovered Rand rant about the failings of the world.)

The conclusion from Serial: Bergdahl got hung up on the same problems that military organizations have been trying to solve for thousands of years. Rather than suck it up and deal with reality, Bowe decided he’d expose the truth and change the world. That definitely makes him deluded and those facts might be of some use when his court martial trial kicks off this summer.