Bowe Bergdahl: Serial v. The U.S. Government
Dec. 21, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Everyone knows the name Bowe Bergdahl. What few people actually know is the actual story behind the name. Sure, like most things, many have pulled their generic stance on the Bergdahl case out of little more than gut reaction and emotion. Many have called (quite literally) for his head, while others see him as a POW who deserves sympathy and honor. What crime did Bergdahl apparently commit? Simply, he walked away. He walked away from the U.S. Army.
Bergdahl’s case has become the focus of season 2 of Serial, a podcast that has registered itself as a potential path out of the journalistic wasteland that is our modern news media. The infamous army sergeant voluntarily wandered off from the Army outpost OP Mest in eastern Afghanistan and was almost immediately captured by the Taliban. Bergdahl remained in Taliban custody for five years before a prisoner exchange brought him home.
General Robert Abrams recently announced that Bergdahl will be facing a General Court Martial, which technically could carry the death penalty, although the Army has said they will not seek execution if Bergdahl is convicted.
Just life in prison.
It is impossible not to notice that Abrams’ announcement came on the heels of the season premiere episode of Serial.
General Abrams’s decision came just days after Sergeant Bergdahl was heard for the first time publicly explaining why he left his base, in taped interviews that were broadcast by the podcast “Serial” last week.
The General’s decision went in a very different direction than what was recommended by the officer who presided over Bergdahl’s September hearing.
Monday’s judgment is more severe than what an Army officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, recommended after overseeing a two-day hearing for Bergdahl’s case in September, according to Bergdahl’s lawyer. Visger recommended that Bergdahl face a lower form of judicial proceeding known as a special court-martial, which would have come with a maximum penalty of 12 months of confinement. He also said Bergdahl should not face any confinement at all.
Abrams decision to completely ignore Visger’s recommendation came four days after the first episode of Serial, where millions of Americans actually heard Bergdahl speak for the first time. He told, in relative clarity, his reasons for deserting his post. He wanted to cause a search response so that once the Army found him, they would be forced to listen to his grievances. He sounds very much like a dumb kid living out an action hero fantasy, and not at all like the monstrous traitor so many have painted him out to be. But General Abrams assures us that the decision to throw all of the books at Bergdahl was made completely independently of the podcast.
A spokesman for Abrams, John Boyce, said the decision to go forward with a general court-martial had nothing to do with Bergdahl’s participation in the “Serial” podcast.
Glad that is all cleared up then.
The most striking thing about this season of Serial is that it tells us all how incredibly little we know. How little we know about the complexity and nuance of the Bergdahl story. How little we know about the part of the world we have been at war with for over a dozen years. How little we know about the military in general and about soldiers specifically. How little we know about the line between right and wrong in wartime.
What we all know all too well, though, is how easily and loudly many cozy public figures will trumpet their chest-beaten certainty about Bergdahl.
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R.-Calif.), whose office has closely tracked the case, questioned whether Bergdahl participating in the podcast may have forced the Army to seek the most serious form of trial.
“He came across nuttier than anyone could have foreseen, and there was already consensus he wasn’t all together to begin with,” said the spokesman, Joe Kasper. “There has to be little sympathy left, where there was some to take.”
Or, he is coming across as someone who is just as “nutty” as a barely-adult would be if he were subsisting on dried food and shitting into a hole in the ground in a terrible part of the world instead of living the life of a normal young man in America. It is amazing how fine the line is between hero and villain.
But it turns out that Hunter is one of the more reasonable figures in the anti-Bergdahl camp. The current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, is not so forgiving.
Donald J. Trump, for one, has called the sergeant a “traitor” who should be executed, while Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has vowed to hold hearings if the sergeant is not punished.
Trump might be harsh, but at least he is not trampling all over the notion of separation of powers like McCain.
Bloviating politicians aside, there is no question that Bergdahl suffered. Greatly. As season 2 progresses, Serial will give us an in-depth look into the life that Bergdahl endured while a Taliban prisoner. We know that he suffered physically.
Another defense witness, Terrence Russell, who debriefed Sergeant Bergdahl after his release, testified that the sergeant had suffered more in captivity than any American since Vietnam, including beatings with rubber hoses and copper cables, and uncontrollable diarrhea for more than three years.
In just the first two episodes of Serial, we begin to see how much he suffered psychologically and emotionally as well. Bergdahl compared himself to an item that is discarded into the back of a closet and then forgotten about. He spent so much time locked in a dark room that at times, he lost touch with concepts of time and the physical world.
See, the tragic beauty of the Bergdahl case is that no one is right. There are no correct answers. If Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial, taught us anything with season 1, it is that she will not be spoon feeding us anything. Thanks to the twenty plus hours of recorded interviews of Bergdahl by filmmaker Mark Boal, we get to hear in his own words why he decided to walk into the wilderness of southwest Asia and what his five years in captivity were like.
Much of the intrigue of the Bergdahl story is less about what happened to him but about all of the other people involved. Starting at the top, President Obama was lumped in as an accessory after the fact to the “traitorous” actions of Bergdahl. The decision to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl has only become more controversial considering that our government went to so much trouble to free this prisoner from over there, only to now put even more effort into making sure that he gets another long stint in prison over here.
The most damning indictment of Bergdahl’s actions is the accurate charge that his desertion placed thousands of soldiers in danger.
His former platoon leader, Capt. John Billings, testified about his “utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my own men.”
He and the other commanders said soldiers searched almost nonstop, never knowing when the ordeal would end, while their underlying mission to support Afghan security forces fell by the wayside. The manhunt involved thousands of troops across thousands of square miles.
When Bergdahl went missing, those in charge ordered that no stone be left unturned. The core military value of “leave no soldier behind” sent a lot of young soldiers deep into the area where Afghanistan borders Pakistan. Bergdahl set in motion a set of events that placed the lives of his fellow soldiers in danger. Serial has unapologetically made it clear that he not only did this, but that he actually, in a way, intended this. This is the most valid source of anger against Bergdahl.
But Serial goes beyond our reaction about what hurts us, and reminds us of our shared humanity. While Bergdahl knew that his disappearance would evoke a response from the Army, he could not have known how massive that response would be. Koenig interviewed numerous soldiers who were involved in the mission to find Bergdahl, a mission that for over one month took priority over all other Army operations in that area. Soldiers recounted rolling into towns in military convoys and going door to door looking for their lost comrade. This left the local populace shaken. One story in particular displayed the true damage that was done by this entire operation.
One soldier told of entering homes and trying to communicate with the residents. No one spoke English and no one had Bergdahl. But the Americans were instructed to search everyone. This included women. When they entered homes, the women in the home would all huddle in the corner in fear. Suspecting that the Taliban might be hiding Bergdahl as a female, the U.S. soldiers physically removed the women’s veils to make sure.
This forces the listener to truly ask the question, how can this be worth it? The damage that this heavy-handed search did to whatever our war effort has been must outweigh the need to find one person. Our military would disagree.
And then there is Bergdahl, the criminal defendant. We often see the world of the military as separate from our own. Much of that is by design. Bergdahl’s attorneys will have an uphill battle considering that Bergdahl has now publicly admitted that he willingly left his post, essentially admitting to the charge of desertion. But the legal implications of his statements do not account for the social and political implications of those same statements. In explaining that he went AWOL in order to bring attention to what he saw as deficient and even dangerous decisions being made by his superiors, he has presented us with a conundrum. How do we judge someone who endangered others by an act that was intended to bring attention to and thereby resolve an already dangerous situation (as Bergdahl saw it)?
Although the Army claims that the Bergdahl court marshal has nothing to do with Serial, that does not change the fact that the podcast will bring unprecedented attention to a military proceeding that is usually conducted far from the limelight. Bergdahl has the rare opportunity to go to the American public and plead the morality, if not the legality, of his decisions. And with the help of Serial, that may end up being a powerful defense.