Screen cap via Wall Street Journal

Serial recap: When politics enter the discussion, it always turns ugly

Everything is political, man. Well, OK — maybe not everything. But many things can certainly become political, often easily so. The Bowe Bergdahl case absolutely became political, as lamented by many of the people Sarah Koenig talked to for episode 10 of Serial, “Thorny Politics.”

Demonstrating just how fresh and unresolved Bergdahl’s story is as season two of Serial continues to be produced, the episode begins with Donald Trump. Everything is Donald Trump, man. Well, it certainly seems like that if you watch anything resembling news these days. So it was probably inevitable that Trump’s presidential run and the outrageous things he says on the campaign trail would bleed into this story.

While campaigning last August in New Hampshire, Trump had some very definite thoughts on Bergdahl, whom he called”a dirty, rotten traitor.” As with many of his current arguments (especially in regards to protestors at his rallies), Trump’s solution is a simple one: Violent justice. Beat him up. Shoot him. That’s how we did it in the old days, when we were strong.

This gets right to the heart of Trump’s appeal with his supporters, with a particular segment of the population. He’s tapped into anger over the state of the economy, over foreign policy, over the political system in Washington D.C. And there has certainly been anger over Bergdahl’s case. Was he a deserter? Did the U.S. give into terrorist demands by trading five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for him?

To those who felt Bergdahl betrayed his country, who felt the White House was being too soft by taking the soldier’s psychological and physical damages suffered during his imprisonment by the Taliban into consideration, this was red meat thrown to a mob with a ravenous appetite.

That’s the entry into this episode’s theme. No, it’s not all about Trump, though he is now indirectly involved as Bergdahl’s lawyers have asked to interview him in a deposition. Do his public remarks indicate that he knows something about the case that he needs to be questioned about? Or is this just an attempt to shut Trump up, because what he’s saying might affect Bergdahl’s ability to receive a fair trial?

More than likely, Bergdahl’s lawyers are trying to make an example of Trump because so many perceptions and opinions have already been formed about the soldier, his decision to leave his post in Afghanistan and his subsequent five-year captivity. But many of those ill feelings and the outrage directed toward Bergdahl resulted from how the White House handled the situation to begin with.

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If everything is political, a big part of that is optics. How is something presented to the public, how is it portrayed? To many, President Obama holding a press conference in the Rose Garden to announce that Bergdahl had been released in a prisoner swap with the Taliban was entirely the wrong way to convey the situation. The setting, with Bergdahl’s relieved and grateful parents standing next to Obama, gave the impression that Bergdahl was being welcomed home as a hero. But many of his fellow soldiers, along with military commanders and politicians, viewed Bergdahl in no such fashion. This became political.

Tensions became even more inflamed when National Security Advisor Susan Rice appeared on television and said, mostly as a cliché without thinking, that Bergdahl had “served with honor and distinction.” Those in the military, especially those who had served with Bergdahl and were directly involved in this scandal, certainly didn’t share the same feeling. Even people working in the West Wing heard Rice’s remarks and winced, knowing how they would be perceived.

Seeing how Bergdahl was apparently being portrayed as a hero by the White House compelled some of his platoon-mates to get together and form a group on Facebook to present a different side of the story, to remind people that Bergdahl had abandoned his duty and put several of his fellow soldiers in danger. They began to appear publicly through the media, on outlets such as Fox News, to voice their objections. The network even ran a report claiming that Bergdahl had converted and was a “warrior of Islam.” (That story was eventually discredited.)

Apparently, all of this could have been avoided. The original intention was never to have a virtual ceremony in the Rose Garden. But Bergdahl’s parents happened to be in Washington D.C., and reporters had heard rumors of the deal being made, so those involved got carried away. Bergdahl’s return was supposed to be announced in two written statements, one from the White House, the other from the Pentagon.

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Had that occurred, Bergdahl’s story might not have been forgotten, but it certainly wouldn’t have received the attention it did. And it wouldn’t have become so politicized. Instead, the White House was accused of being tone-deaf to how the announcement would be perceived, of failing to understand military culture. It’s not just how Bergdahl was being portrayed, but the possibility that he had done something wrong, that he might have to be held accountable for his actions, wasn’t even mentioned.

Congressional hearings were held in which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was questioned and chasitised. In particular, the question of whether or not any soldiers were killed in the attempt to search for and rescue Bergdahl was raised. Hagel said that he had seen no evidence to indicate that anyone had been injured, nor had any lives been lost. Yet there had apparently been no formal investigation into this, something that Gen. Kenneth Dahl (who debriefed Bergdahl) said should be addressed.

To bring this full circle, Trump mentioned during his tirade that six soldiers had been killed attempting to recover Bergdahl. In the absence of actual information, people are filling the vacuum with what they’ve heard, been told or believe. Maybe this is why Bergdahl’s lawyers want to talk to Trump. Where did he get that number?

Whether or not any soldiers were injured or killed, and why there was no official investigation into the matter, are what Koenig will investigate in Serial‘s next episode. It’s hard to believe it’s taken 11 episodes to get to a question central to the disdain and outrage directed toward Bergdahl, but maybe Koenig and her staff needed to do more reporting on the subject (creating the need for a bi-weekly schedule).

It’s also very likely that the next episode will address new documents of an interview Bergdahl had with Army investigators will also be addressed. This story just isn’t standing still.

You can read all of our Serial recaps here.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, also covering baseball at The Outside Corner and pop culture for The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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