Season two of Serial seemed like it might never end, as the podcast chose to cover a story that still hasn’t ended. Yet episode 11, “Present For Duty,” was indeed the season finale. Unfortunately, as could be expected if you’ve been following this entire season, so many questions haven’t been answered, leaving listeners feeling unsatisfied.
The case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who left his post in Afghanistan, was subsequently captured by the Taliban and imprisoned for five years before being released in a prisoner swap, is still being reviewed by the U.S. military as the soldier faces a possible court-martial. A true ending, a sense of closure, was impossible, even if host Sarah Koenig and her production team managed to lend some clarity to the story with their investigation.
However, “Present For Duty” focuses largely on a question that Serial probably should have explored earlier (but likely didn’t have enough information on): Were any soldiers killed in the effort to find and rescue Bergdahl from the Taliban?
Many considered Bergdahl a deserter who walked out on his duty. Furthermore, some viewed him as a traitor who became a Taliban sympathizer and converted to Islam during his imprisonment. Never mind that he already served a significant punishment while being held captive. He still had to be held accountable for his actions by our military.
Others pointed to the circumstances were put in during the war in Afghanistan, perhaps as a way of explaining — though not necessarily justifying — Bergdahl’s decision. These soldiers endured terrible conditions, wreaking a physical and mental toll that would have broken many people. For a few episodes, it seemed like that’s how Koenig’s investigation was leaning. Call it the Chris Rock defense: I’m not saying he should’ve done it, but I understand it.
But Bergdahl’s actions are particularly inexcusable — or heinous, if you choose to use a much stronger word — if his fellow soldiers were killed because of what he did. The previous episode, “Thorny Politics,” delved into that question and the prevailing narrative that six people were killed during the operation to recover Bergdahl. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has thrown out that number on the campaign trail, while arguing that Bergdahl should face harsh penalties.
Is that number factual, however, or something of a myth that developed as Bergdahl’s story was being reported? Koenig speaks to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who says that this part of the story is absolutely true. He calls it “a no-brainer.” But a key aspect to this angle of the story is what Koenig begins the episode with.
Six soldiers were indeed killed during the time Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban. But there’s an important distinction in that sentence. Those soldiers didn’t lose their lives while searching for Bergdahl directly, but rather while serving other operations in Afghanistan. For example, one was killed during a mission to take control of an area between the Pakistan border and a road leading into Kabul. Searching for Bergdahl may have been part of that operation, as in “If you see or hear of anything, pursue it.” But it wasn’t the primary objective.
That’s not to say the search for Bergdahl didn’t result in casualties. There were serious injuries that occurred while engaging in firefights or encountering IEDs. Would those have been avoided if there wasn’t an attempt to find Bergdahl? Perhaps, but it’s also possible those soldiers and others would have been hurt elsewhere, because that’s what happens in a war. As Sergeant Major Ken Wolf puts it while talking to Koenig, “You’re in a very bad neighborhood regardless. You could get killed any day.”
By the way, as heard in episode six, Wolf was not a fan of Bergdahl, nor what he saw as a lack of discipline from many of his platoonmates at that time. Yet even he won’t draw a straight line from Bergdahl’s disappearance to soldier fatalities. Not only does the geography and timeline not support those claims, but the overall situation is just far more complicated than that.
For instance, some soldiers and commanders used the Bergdahl search to justify riskier operations, ones that would justify taking greater action and initiating hostilities against the Taliban. Hey, we were looking for Bergdahl. That got a lot of missions approved that otherwise might not have been. And those decisions led to casualties which might have occurred had more rational thinking prevailed. But again, this is war. For better or for worse, everyone involved signed up for what happened in Afghanistan.
Another important point raised by Koenig and the many people she spoke with is that Bergdahl was not the only soldier who went AWOL during the war in Afghanistan. Far from it. Hundreds of soldiers abandoned their duty and many were charged with desertion.
According to numbers the U.S. Army gave to Koenig: From 2001 and 2014, more than 3,500 people were convicted of going AWOL. 980 of them were convicted of desertion. Though many of those cases occurred in the U.S., such as people not showing up to their bases. Most of those who left their posts were picked up by Afghan police and returned to the U.S. military. In at least one case, the soldier had an even more elaborate plan than Bergdahl, planning to walk to eastern Europe and intended to make it look as if he’d been kidnapped.
But those soldiers weren’t captured by the Taliban. They weren’t part of a prisoner swap involving terrorists. Their recovery didn’t receive a Rose Garden ceremony and press conference. Their story wasn’t the subject of 11 episodes of a popular podcast. For many soldiers who endured the war in Afghanistan and those who loved them, Bowe Bergdahl became a symbol of their pain and outrage. (However, some who initially blamed him have changed those feelings after years of contemplation and realization.) He embodied a misguided war and counter-insurgency effort.
After 11 episodes and a journalistic investigation that told a story but provided few satisfying answers, it feels natural to ask what the point of Serial‘s season two was. The tagline for the show is “One story told week by week,” and Serial certainly did that with Bowe Bergdahl’s case. But this story wasn’t as alluring or soapy as the Adnan Syed murder conviction of season one. There was no whodunit aspect; there wasn’t necessarily a mystery to be solved. At least not a mystery in the traditional sense.
Yes, there was the question of why Bergdahl did what he did. And as it turns out, the answer was far from simple. Bergdahl was a lost soul with delusions of grandeur looking for purpose and thought he’d find it in the military. The Army accepted him, overlooking previous standards and several red flags because the war in Afghanistan needed recruits for its troop surge. There was significant disagreement over how to handle the situation in Afghanistan, with officials and politicians constantly clashing, and soldiers suffered as a result.
Calling attention to all of these aspects to the war in Afghanistan was a worthy effort. Perhaps that’s what Koenig and her producers had in mind from the outset. Unfortunately, this season often felt as if the show was hoping to find something and ended up having to explore other directions instead. That’s part of the exciting risk of the show. They don’t know what the story will turn out to be. Obviously, the hope is that an investigation will turn up something revelatory and powerful. But it can also lead to frustration and lack of resolution.
There’s no guarantee that Serial will find a more compelling story to cover in season three. But you do have to wonder if Koenig and her team learned some important lessons from this past season. Maybe pursue something with more of a human interest angle. Perhaps delve less into politics and world events. Trying to avoid covering a story that is still developing as the reporting is being done seems like a good approach. Of course, all of that will depend on what turns up and ends up looking like the best story. But will devoted listeners will want to follow again without some sense of satisfaction?
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