‘Serial’ Episode 11 – Assigning the Blame

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We’ve reached the final episode of the Serial podcast’s investigation of the Bowe Bergdahl matter and, while the headlines all trumpet some version of “Serial Says ‘No Troops Died,'” the reality is (as usual) more complicated than the soundbite. At the end of the series, it’s undeniable that the program’s staff has at least as much empathy for the troops who felt betrayed and endangered by Bergdahl’s actions as they do for the confused kid who probably should have never been allowed to enlist in the Army in the first place.

Part of the advantage of stretching your program out over several months in serial form is that listeners can contact the reporters with new information and people interviewed early in the series can reconsider and clarify their original opinions.

The program opens with two Coast Guard veterans who attended boot camp with Bergdahl when he got separated. Justin (no last name) was listening to the program when he heard about Bowe’s January 2006 experiences and realized, “Hey, I know this guy.” He contacted the program, goes on mic to share his memories of the night Bowe broke down and put the program in touch with another guy from the boot camp class, John Roffa (that’s a guess on the spelling – anyone who can clarify, please comment below), who had much more vivid memories of the night in question: he’s one of the guys who found Bergdahl in the bathroom, covered in blood, and speculates he might have broken the mirror by banging his head.

That interview leads Koenig to reconsider Bergdahl’s separation from the Coast Guard and she relates that she’s talked to more people who suggest that the above accounts are probably true, that no one gets sent to hospital and separated after a mere crying jag. All of which supports the idea that the Army should’ve never taken him in the first place.

Now we get to the complicated part. Lt General Michael Flynn, ex-head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and General Stanley McChrystal’s second in command in Afghanistan, insists that soldiers died searching for Bowe Bergdahl and asserts it as common knowledge: “It’s a no-brainer.” Unfortunately, the military has never made a study designed to detail the exact costs of the search for Bergdhal, so Koenig sets out to perform her own investigation in spite of the fact that many of the helpful documents are classified.

The case that Bowe Bergdahl caused soliders to get killed looking for him started the day the president announced his return with that ill-advised Rose Garden press conference. Members of his battalion floated the names of six soldiers who died after his DUSTWUN and their deaths have become an article of faith in some some circles, even inspiring a t-shirts that say “F**k Bergdahl” with six stars under the name.

It turns out that those men were killed on missions after the military had pretty much quit looking for Bergdahl and those missions had other purposes. Still, the men who were there on the ground insist that the shadow of Bergdahl hung over everything they did and they were constantly reminded to keep an eye out for intel that could locate their man.

And, finally, we get to the headline: Sgt. Major Ken Wolf (who thoroughly trashed Bergdahl back in Episode 6) and was the highest-ranking NCO in the battalion at the time, says that the Army knew that Bergdahl was in Pakistan and that the incidents where men died had zero to do with the search for Bowe Bergdahl. It’s likely the most emotional moment in the entire series, because Wolf insists that he loves the men who’ve been making these claims but he thinks it’s important to honor those who died by describing the true circumstances of their deaths.

Serial also details some of the heartbreaking and life-altering injuries that soldiers suffered during the search for Bergdahl, a reality that’s been ignored in the debate over whether or how many troops died looking for him.

This final episode spends a lot of time on concepts that are decidedly unfamiliar to civilians, that everything in the military is on a need-to-know basis and that troops are carrying out missions with no real knowledge of the overall objectives or what facts informed the decision to go on that mission in the first place. Koenig comes to understand that the men who were on these missions felt like they were looking for Bergdahl even if, technically, they weren’t.

That’s the real accomplishment of this series: Serial places the actions of a young, misinformed, mentally unstable soldier in context. Sure, he may have believed he went AWOL to expose wrongdoing. Yes, he suffered brutal treatment in five years of captivity. But his actions transformed the mission in Afghanistan (at least for a while) and had repercussions for the soldiers who served alongside him and the ones who were tasked with finding him. That’s why he faces a court-martial.

Serial may revisit the case when there are further developments. Although the trial is scheduled for August, defense requests for classified documents may delay that date.

Let us know what you think. Is there any gray area here? Does it change your opinion if no troops were killed on missions specifically designed to locate Bowe Bergdahl?