Episode seven of Serial was the first of a two-part episode titled “Hindsight,” which really tries to get into Bowe Bergdahl’s head, hoping to explain how leaving his base in Afghanistan and harboring a distrust of his commanding officers made sense for someone with his personality and worldview.
Bergdahl never quite grew up with an authority figure in his life, nor the interactions with others that would allow him to develop proper social skills. So he was always challenging, whether directly or indirectly, people or situations to see what would happen. Because he really didn’t know. He would watch people almost as an anthropologist would, studying how they would react in certain scenarios, then deciding whether to adopt that behavior himself.
Ultimately, Bergdahl seemed like a lost soul, someone in need of a purpose and a place to fit in. People were bound to let him down because he became increasingly intolerant of what they would let go on a regular basis. He also craved some sort of adventure in his life, where his mettle would somehow be tested. The military seemed like a natural direction for him.
Yet those who knew Bergdahl best, notably Kim Harrison — who was a surrogate mother figure for him — suspected that he wouldn’t respond well to being ordered around and broken down for the greater good of a unit or mission. She encouraged Bergdahl to join the Coast Guard, where he could at least help people. But during basic training, he had a breakdown, one that resulted in him being discharged or “separated.” If Bergdahl wasn’t able to handle those circumstances emotionally or psychologically, how could he be expected to cope in the Army?
This is where episode eight picks up the second part of the story. Should Bergdahl have even been allowed to join the Army? Shouldn’t recruiters have picked up on his difficulties or pushed back more on his Coast Guard breakdown? However, Bergdahl joined the military during the troop surge in Afghanistan and the Army needed more recruits. As a result, the standards typically applied to prospective soldiers were waived.
Host Sarah Koenig talked a retired Army psychiatrist, who said that this was pretty standard procedure for the Army. Bergdahl’s separation from the Coast Guard wasn’t labeled as a psych discharge, so there was no reason to think that was the reason for his leaving. He showed no obvious psychological issues during his recruitment, and those sorts of issues usually reveal themselves during basic training. Yet Bergdahl thrived in that environment.
Another psychologist Koenig spoke with — one more familiar with Bergdahl, since he helped reintegrate him after his release from Taliban imprisonment — said that the Army “dropped the ball” by not asking more questions about his discharge from the Coast Guard, because that likely would have uncovered some concerns likely to surface again during military service. That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? If someone broke down during basic training in the Coast Guard, wouldn’t such circumstances repeat themselves, if not become worse in a more heightened, stressful situation?
But while Bergdahl may have envisioned himself as ideal for the military, the modern realities of the current U.S. Army and the mission in Afghanistan didn’t fulfill what he’d imagined. It wasn’t all about honor and sacrifice, or combat (especially of a hand-to-hand nature). He wanted to be a warrior — a “kung-fu fighter,” in his words. The objective was counterinsurgency, to attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Furthermore, Bergdahl’s platoon-mates didn’t share his same code. They followed orders, but to them, it was a job, not a way of life.
It became increasingly clear to his fellow soldiers that Bergdahl wasn’t adapting well to his deployment, was becoming more distrustful. One even raised concern with a commanding officer, who responded, “Shut the fuck up, no one needs to hear what a fucking E-5 has to say about a guy in my company.” Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s letters to friends back home indicated that he was becoming more disillusioned and frustrated with the Army and the mission in Afghanistan.
In one of those letters, Bergdahl quoted Atlas Shrugged extensively, particularly characters who refused to settle for mediocrity and voiced social protest. Shortly thereafter, Bergdahl went missing.
Toward the end of the episode, Koenig reveals that Bergdahl was diagnosed with “a severe mental disease or defect” by a neutral Army psychiatry board. More specifically, Bergdahl was suffering from “a schizotypal personality disorder” when he made the decision to walk off his base in Afghanistan.
What does that mean? A person develops loner tendencies, can misread situations by interpreting personal meaning, develops social anxiety, and might believe he has special abilities and attach grand ideas to his general purpose. Sound familiar? Such a condition is typically triggered or exacerbated by stress, such as that encountered in basic training or a deployment in Afghanistan.
As sad as it is to hear that something was actually wrong with Bergdahl, the diagnosis does help explain his behavior. Considering the circumstances, his decision makes sense. Yet that still doesn’t justify what happened in the view of his fellow soldiers. Some have decided to move on, even forgive, at this point. Others say they’ll never get over it and believe he’s still lying. Even those who feel that Bergdahl’s concerns were valid, regardless of what may have fueled them, it doesn’t excuse what he did. As one puts it, they all went through the same thing, but didn’t walk off.
Will being diagnosed with psychological problems undercut the issues Bergdahl was attempting to draw attention to? That seems like a very real possibility in his upcoming court-martial, during which the mental illness will surely be used as a defense. But does any of this explanation subvert the prevailing belief — among the military more than civilians — that Bergdahl betrayed his fellow soldiers and deserted his duty?
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