Why did Bowe Bergdahl do it? Why did the Army sergeant abandon his post in Afghanistan, leading to his capture and five-year imprisonment by the Taliban? That might not be the only question that Serial seeks to answer in its second season, but it’s at least among the top two that need to be addressed.
In the first episode, Bergdahl explained during interviews with screenwriter Mark Boal that he wanted to expose what he viewed as irresponsible and unethical behavior by his commanding officers. (Boal’s production company is developing a movie about Bergdahl and is helping this season of Serial.) He felt that the soldiers in his unit were endangered by poor leadership. Leaving his post to invoke a “DUSTWUN” (Duty Status, Whereabouts Unknown) call was his intention. The idea was that he’d eventually be corralled by a different unit, get an audience with officials higher up the chain to whom he could voice his concerns.
But there’s a lot to investigate in Bergdahl’s assertions, which is where Sarah Koenig and her staff went for episode six, titled “5 O’Clock Shadow.” Accusing commanding officers of putting soldiers in danger is a serious charge. But exactly what happened that dissatisfied and angered Bergdahl so much that he felt the need to walk away from his base, a decision that ended up costing him dearly?
Bergdahl had a lot to say about the matter after he was released by the Taliban. His debriefing with Gen. Kenneth Dahl resulted in a report totaling 380 pages. As Bergdahl puts it, explaining the story required telling the whole story, including what sort of person he was.
Though it might appear otherwise, Bergdahl was an excellent soldier. If there was a fantasy draft for guys you’d want in your platoon, he’d be the No. 1 pick. One of his platoonmates marvels that Bergdahl actually read the Ranger Handbook. Everybody says they read it, but he really did. Bergdahl had a career track in mind. He wanted to be in Special Forces, to work as a security contractor after his tour in the military had finished. He took this stuff really seriously, which made him sort of an outcast in his platoon.
However, the operation in Afghanistan didn’t present the ideal situation for a soldier with career aspirations. Gen. David Petraeus’ Counter-Insurgency (or “COIN”) strategy was the mission. Rather than fight the enemy and shoot a bunch of Taliban, battalions were ordered to win the hearts and minds of the people, to build a nation. What the leaders didn’t consider was how distrustful the Afghans would be. It was much easier and rational to believe what the Taliban was saying, that the U.S. military was there because it hated Islam.
Bergdahl’s unit eventually got involved in a significant firefight, but largely because commanders demanded that soldiers stay with vehicles disabled by explosive devices for fear that technology fall into enemy hands or become a symbol for anti-American propaganda. That left them open to ambush, an attack the unit managed to survive.
However, upon returning to base, the battalion commander, Col. Clint Baker, didn’t greet his soldiers with congratulations for surviving or concern for their well-being. The first thing he said to men who had been stranded for days with vehicles beyond repair, lived through a firefight, yet completed their task was, “What, you couldn’t shave?” That irritated every soldier involved, but especially Bergdahl.
The concern over appearance, rather than comfort or safety, came up again when Bergdahl’s unit was tasked with creating an outpost just outside an Afghan town. Digging a hole for a base camp in the searing desert heat compelled the soldiers to shed their gear, notably heavy body armor and helmets. Though there was general permission to break uniform code, commanding officers were outraged upon seeing the unit essentially undressed out in the open.
The situation was worsened when the soldiers were photographed by The Guardian, and seen by those higher up the chain of command. Koenig interviewed Ken Wolf, who was Baker’s second-in-command and just as angry about the soldiers’ appearance, especially since they were photographed for the entire world to see.
“Do you see anybody with body armor on?” Wolf said. “Do you see guys with helmets on? No, you see a bunch of guys waiting to get fucking killed.”
Wolf also took issue with how the soldiers were holding their weapons, pointed up, rather than mounted on tripod for immediate use and proper defense. To him and the other commanders, this demonstrated a lack of discipline, one that left unchecked could lead to major problems if the situation escalated near the base. If the soldiers couldn’t follow simple rules, who’s to say they wouldn’t later show complete disregard for their mission? As unlikely as that might seem, commanding officers didn’t even want to start down that path.
That sentiment further upset Bergdahl, who couldn’t believe that leadership considered this unacceptable behavior that needed to be punished. Weren’t there far greater concerns? Were commanders more concerned about appearances than the actual welfare of the soldiers? What about leaving them up in the mountains with damaged vehicles with no support, other than sending over mechanics to repair what couldn’t be saved? Couple that with a mission that seemed fundamentally misguided in its principles, and Bergdahl had completely lost trust.
“That’s why I ended up doing what I did,” said Bergdahl. “Because he was out of control, from what I could see. He was unfit for what he was doing, and I wouldn’t put it past him to be the type of guy to purposely put me and my platoon-mates in harm’s way just because he has a personal grudge against us.”
Did that justify what Bergdahl did in leaving his post, eventually endangering fellow soldiers tasked with trying to find and rescue him? Displeasure over being yelled at over appearances and a belief that his commanders might try to make an example out of the offending soldiers (perhaps even sending them on a suicide mission) doesn’t quite seem like a suitable enough reason for insubordination. Koenig and Boal both express “you gotta be kidding me” disbelief over this. There had to be more, right? Was it just that Bergdahl was such an unusual personality? We’ll apparently find out in the next episode.
You can read all of our Serial recaps here.