(serialpodcast.org/Meredith Heuer/AP/US Army)

"Serial" may investigate Bowe Bergdahl next: Here are 6 huge questions we hope Sarah Koenig will be able to answer

Sources say "Serial" may work with "Zero Dark Thirty" writer Mark Boal on the former POW's case


Anna Silman
September 24, 2015 2:58AM (UTC)

Last night, news broke that the second season of “Serial” will likely follow its investigation of the Adnan Syed murder case by investigating the active and much-discussed case of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In a report for Maxim, soldier Matthew Farwell writes that Sarah Koenig and one or more of the show’s producers, as well as Mark Boal, the “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter who has been working on a feature film about Bergdahl, were present at a hearing for Bergdahl’s case in San Antonio, Texas, last week. Two former members of Bergdahl's unit told Farwell that “Serial" producers have interviewed them about the case.

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When reached for comment, “Serial’s” Emily Condon said that “the ‘Serial’ staff is currently working on several things simultaneously: Season 2, Season 3, and some other podcast projects. For now we’re not talking publicly about anything that we’re working on." (She also implored journalists to stop scrutinizing their future plans, because it “doesn't feel very menschy," although that seems like wishful thinking.)

While nothing has been confirmed for sure, the Bergdahl case seems like it could be a very fruitful one for “Serial” to dig into, given its many ongoing unknowns. Bergdahl was, until last year, the last remaining U.S. POW, having been kidnapped by the Taliban after walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009. In May 2014, President Obama arranged to swap Bergdahl for five Taliban members imprisoned in Guantánamo. His release ignited intense controversy both partisan and personal, with conservatives and about half of the U.S. public questioning the morality of the prisoner swap, while Bergdahl’s former Army comrades accused him of being a deserter and argued that U.S. soldiers' lives were lost in the rescue effort. Currently, an Army hearing is deciding whether Bergdahl will be court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Here are some questions we hope to see “Serial” address when they if they tackle this case next season.

Who is Bowe Bergdahl?

With “Serial” season one, much of the podcast was spent scrutinizing the psychology and mental state of Adnan Syed, who was accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee back in 1999, but had no clear motive. Using interviews with Syed and people who knew him, Koenig attempted to understand how such a seemingly nice, well-adjusted boy could have committed such a heinous crime.

Similarly, we expect much of Serial 2.0 to focus on the complex inner life of Bergdahl, which has been grasped at in various profiles but remains something of a mystery. Perhaps the most definitive look at Bergdahl’s psyche comes from the late Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of the then-POW back in 2012. Hastings paints Bergdahl as an eccentric dreamer and wanderer with a vivid imagination, who joined the army seeking the adventures he had read about and watched as a child, and looking to make use of the wilderness survival skills he fostered during his childhood in rural Sun Valley, Idaho. In a June 2014 Washington Post piece, two of Bergdahl’s friends from Idaho describe him as “an introspective young man who sometimes painted his fingernails black and identified with Japanese samurai warriors and medieval knights. He was often seen writing in a notebook and reading. He liked to portray himself as a dark, adventurous soul with a chivalrous spirit, a dramatic persona his friends often teased him about.”

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In the same Washington Post piece, reporter Stephanie McCrummen scrutinizes Bergdahl’s journal — which he sent home to a friend, Kim Harrison, just before disappearing — as well as emails to his friends and family. As McCrummen writes:

“... a trove of Bergdahl’s writing — his handwritten journal along with essays, stories and e-mails provided to The Washington Post — paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.”

His journal entries detail his inner struggles, his doubts about the military and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, allusions to Ayn Rand and the book “Atlas Shrugged,” and many references to leaving or walking away.

"I"m worried," he wrote before being shipped off to Afghanistan. "The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I'm reverting. I'm getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness.”

Other journal entries are similarly cryptic; at one point, he refers to himself as “the lone wolf of deadly nothingness” and on the final page he listed story ideas, including "a story about one going-crazy-to wander the earth alone.” In an email to friends soon before he deserted titled “Who is John Galt?” (the protagonist of “Atlas Shrugged”) he wrote, “I will serve no bandit, nor lair, for i know John Galt, and understand . . .This life is too short to serve those who compromise value, and its ethics. i am done compromising.”

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Did mental illness play a role?

Soon after his release, news broke that Bergdahl had been in the Coast Guard before joining the Army. He was discharged in 2006 for reasons the Coast Guard refused to specify, but a number of his friends told the Washington Post that they believed the reason was psychological. Certainly, many of Bergdahl’s writings support the assumption that Bergdahl was battling inner demons.

Which raises the question: Why was Bergdahl allowed to enlist in the Army two years later? We know that in 2008, what with the troop surge, the Army was increasingly using waivers to admit recruits who would not have normally qualified, but it certainly doesn't reflect well on the U.S. military. As Time writes, the Bergdahl saga “has become a darker tale about a seemingly-confused young man whose woes the Army may have been willing to overlook to gain a willing recruit for the war in Afghanistan.”

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Alas, we may learn more about Bergdahl’s mental state soon. Six days ago, a lawyer on Bergdahl’s defense team argued that the sergeant suffered from a “severe mental disease or defect” during his decision to leave base back in 2009.

Why did Bergdahl leave his base?

The big question — the “was there a payphone in the Best Buy Parking Lot” of the Bergdahl case, if you will — is why the sergeant (then a private first class) left his base on the night of June 30, 2009. Before his return, many of Bergdahl’s fellow platoon members condemned him as a deserter, citing the many remarks he made about leaving (such as looking wistfully at the mountains and wondering if he could walk to China or India), the fact that he had a history of leaving post, as well as sending most of his belongings home shortly before he left. (Of course, as with the Syed case, there are plenty of wild conspiracy theories, ranging from the belief that Bergdahl was a spy or Taliban sympathizer to questions about Bergdahl’s dad’s suspiciously scraggly beard.)

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We do know that Bergdahl was unhappy with the war effort, and that his exit was planned; he left the base on June 30 with water, knives and writing materials in hand. Prior to leaving, he asked his superior if there would be problems if he left the base with sensitive equipment.

In his final email to his parents on June 27, Hastings' Rolling Stone profile reports that Bergdahl wrote a lengthy screed condemning the war effort and proclaiming his disillusionment with the military, which he emailed to his parents: "In the US army you are cut down for being honest... but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank... The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” Bergdahl also told his parents that he had sent them a number of boxes containing his uniform and books, that they could use as they liked.

The big question now is whether Bergdahl officially "deserted" — whether he left with no plans to return — or whether he was merely AWOL, having taken an unauthorized leave. In March, the U.S. military officially charged Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and now his lawyers are attempting to argue that Bergdahl was merely AWOL, and had left to expose misdeeds at his base.

Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who investigated Bergdahl’s disappearances, told the San Antonio court last week that the sergeant believed the problems with leadership were serious enough that they endangered his platoon (even though this assessment was “completely off the mark”) and that he left in order to create a “PR event” that would draw attention to the issues. "He felt it was his duty to intervene,” Dahl said, saying he did not think Bergdahl should face prison time.

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Bergdahl, meanwhile, recently testified about his own motives, saying he had planned to leave his base in order to walk to the nearest U.S. military outpost, where he intended to report his concerns about mismanagement and poor leadership at his base. More details will likely emerge over the course of the hearings. As Farwell writes in Maxim, with the case unfolding in real time, “we can expect plenty of the courtroom drama that made the first [season of "Serial"] so great.”

What was going on in Bergdahl’s unit?

While Bergdahl’s mental state remains a question mark, it seems pretty clear that conditions in Bergdahl’s unit were unraveling along with the wider war effort. Hastings writes that Bowe’s unit was “unprepared and undisciplined” and that during training stateside, “the platoon was so notorious for screwing up that it had become a convenient scapegoat.” Once they arrived in Afghanistan, frequent changes in leadership ultimately led to “a collapse in unit morale and an almost complete breakdown of authority,” he wrote, and the unit “continued to bungle even the most basic aspects of military duty” as the fighting went on.

Sean Smith, a documentary filmmaker from the Guardian, embedded with Bergdahl’s unit back in 2009, and his footage reportedly captures a unit in disarray. Per Hastings, they were “breaking even the most basic rules of combat, like wearing baseball caps on patrol instead of helmets.”

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What were the repercussions of Bergdahl's departure from base?

While we anticipate Koenig and co. to focus on Bergdahl’s actions that led to him fleeing the base, another equally interesting question centers on the repercussions those actions caused. Much of the anger aimed at Bergdahl from his fellow Army members stems from the extensive search and rescue mission that they undertook to try and free him, with many alleging that all following casualties in Afghanistan were collateral from the Bergdahl rescue mission.

In a lengthy Newsweek piece in April, Michael Ames explores the frustration and anger of those who risked their lives searching for Bergdahl, as well as “the charge that Bergdahl’s actions led to the deaths of fellow soldiers,” which is “the most important and disturbing one he faces.”

“Every single person that died [out there] was doing something to find Bowe Bergdahl,” platoon medic Josh Cornelison said in an interview with NBC last year, echoing the sentiments of many of his colleagues. However, Pentagon officials have countered these narratives, with former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated last summer that he did “not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl.”

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In a recent analysis of Dahl’s report, Bergdahl’s lawyer Eugene R. Fidell writes: “The report properly dismisses a variety of contentions that have been made about Sergeant Bergdahl. No, he was not planning to walk to China or India. No, there is no evidence that any soldier died searching for him. No, there is no evidence of misbehavior of any kind while he was held captive. Nor is there any credible evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl left in order to get in touch with the Taliban.”

Then, of course, there’s the whole political quagmire regarding the Taliban prisoner swap, which we imagine Koenig will have no trouble finding Republican officials to bloviate about.

What does this say about us?

Koenig and her team used the Adnan Syed case to explore a number of larger themes, from questions of racial profiling and the flaws in our criminal justice system to broader ideas about guilt, morality and the nature of truth itself. Likewise, the Bergdahl case seems like a rich jumping-off point to interrogate the role of the military (and the questionable rationales behind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), as well as the psychological effects of military deployment and our abysmal treatment of our veterans when they return. As many have furiously debated the ethics of the Taliban prisoner swap, it also raises questions about the worth of an individual life and the ethics and consequences of desertion (regardless of whether Bergdahl is found to have deserted), which can be viewed either as a principled stand or an act of treason (indeed, deserters have been fraught, lightning rod figures for as long as wars have been waged). What's more, as we increasingly hear the phrase “outrage culture” bandied about, it would be fascinating to investigate the so-called “lynch mob atmosphere” (as his lawyer Eugene R. Fidell called it) that awaited Bergdahl when he returned.

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In many ways, the vitriolic and partisan response to Bergdahl’s release seems to be a reflection of how Americans feel about the war itself. As Frank Rich writes in New York magazine, the heated response to the Bergdahl affair is a reflection of America’s fatigue with “forever war,” and Bergdahl is a pawn “in the continuing political fallout over two endless wars that did not go well.”

“In politics and war, simple myths are more useful than complex realities,” offered Ames in his Newsweek piece. “The soldiers who searched for Bergdahl did so without question, and in their selflessness, they called upon the military’s essential and sacred codes of honor. The families and small towns that lost men in those searches bear a powerful witness to the horror and confusion of America’s longest war. They deserve an honest accounting of what happened to their sons and why.”

Or, as Hastings put it: “Bowe’s own tour of duty in Afghanistan mirrored the larger American experience in the war – marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity. And it is with Bowe that the war will likely come to an end.”

Your turn, Koenig.

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Anna Silman

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