Bowe Bergdahl on 'Serial': Exploring the moral fault lines?

Bergdahl, a kidnapped US soldier held for five years by the Taliban, has earned fierce scrutiny for his decision to leave post. A popular podcast about the controversial case may shed light on others' decisions, as well. 

Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan in an authenticated video obtained from a jihadist website. Bergdahl was held by the Taliban for five years after leaving his Afghanistan military base, then exchanged for five Taliban members. He now faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

"Nobody knows Sergeant Bergdahl’s story," the Pentagon's Terrence Russell testified in September, during a preliminary hearing for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American who was held captive by militants in Afghanistan for five years before being returned to US forces in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees. Mr. Bergdahl's story has provoked fury from many and charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

"I hope that someday the world gets to know how difficult he had it for four years and 11 months," Mr. Russell, who has interviewed more than 100 Americans held in captivity, told the courtroom at Fort Sam Houston, Texas

At 6 a.m. Thursday morning, Sgt. Bergdahl got the chance to begin telling his side of the story.

The second season of the popular podcast "Serial," was released Thursday, titled "DUSTWUN," or, in military lingo, "Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown." The show's first season focused on the many questions surrounding the 1999 murder of a high school student was downloaded more than 100 million times, and won a Peabody Award. The new episodes will draw from more than 25 hours of interviews between "Zero Dark Thirty" writer Mark Boal and Bergdahl, who gave permission to use the tapes after listening to the show's first season.

Bergdahl "is such an interesting and unusual guy, not like anyone I’ve encountered before," the show's producer and host, Sarah Koenig, wrote on the podcast's website:

But it’s also about all of the people affected by [his] decision, and the choices they made. Unlike our story in Season One, this one extends far out into the world. It reaches into swaths of the military, the peace talks to end the war, attempts to rescue other hostages, our Guantanamo policy. What Bergdahl did made me wrestle with things I’d thought I more or less understood, but really didn’t: what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished.

Bergdahl left his post in Paktika province, Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, launching an intense search effort and, years later, a prisoner swap. The Taliban freed their captive – who in the meantime had been promoted from private first class – in return for five Guantanamo detainees, setting off a political firestorm from many who accused the White House of acting illegally to broker the deal. 

Now, Bergdahl's charges could carry a life sentence. He says that he had planned to hike 18 miles alone, without a weapon, to a different post, where he hoped to report problems in his unit's leadership. Instead, he was captured by Taliban-affiliated militants.

His whistleblowing explanation failed to earn sympathy with many Americans, who argued that he was simply a deserter and not worth exchanging terror suspects for. In June 2014, a week after his return to the United States, 56 percent of respondents to a CBS News poll said the cost of rescue was too high. Among veterans, that number rose to 65 percent. 

In the first episode, Bergdahl says he changed his plan, deciding to first try and gather information on the Taliban's roadside explosives to soften "the hurricane of wrath that was going to hit me."

Ms. Koenig anticipates that the series will run for 8 to 10 episodes, which may pull in perspectives, and ethical dilemmas, from the case's generous cast: the Obama administration's choice to trade, the possibility that the Army turned a blind eye to Bergdahl's previous mental-health issues, and even the drama of his family, who had encouraged their son to "obey your conscience," although they could not know what he had in mind, and were rebuked by some conservatives for studying Afghan culture in an effort to understand Bowe's situation.

"In the old days ... deserters were shot," Donald Trump is heard saying in Episode 1, as an indication of the uphill battle Bergdahl faced for sympathy – a battle that his lawyers hope "Serial" might help. 

Some military figures are already pushing for Bergdahl to be discharged, rather than face a trial by court martial. Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who is leading the investigation, has said that jail would be "inappropriate." A doctor and Army official have testified to Bergdahl's severe abuse during his capture, and the likely lifelong medical issues stemming from it, with Mr. Russell describing his conditions as the worst a captured US soldier has faced since the Vietnam War. 

"He did the best job he can do – and I respect him for it," he said in September.

Many have questioned Bergdahl's mental stability at the time he left the post, days after sending worrying e-mails to friends and family.

"I am sorry for everything here," he wrote to his parents, criticizing soldiers who condescended to locals, or even joked about an injured Afghan child:

The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong ... In the US Army you are cut down for being honest ... It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies.

"Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands," Bob Bergdahl, who home-schooled his son in rural Idaho, replied on June 27. 

Friends described a sensitive, drifting, individualistic young man who lurched from one idea or adventure to the next, according to The Washington Post, which obtained Bergdahl's earlier journals. 

On June 21, the "Atlas Shrugged" fan e-mailed one friend to muse, "how far will a human go to find their complete freedom ... For one’s freedom, do they have the right to destroy the world to gain it?"

Friends say he had previously been kicked out of Coast Guard training for psychological reasons, which he told them was a ruse. 

"I know he believed he was in control, but I didn’t," one told the Post. "I sincerely doubted that."

According to the Post, the War on Terror prompted military recruiters to take in soldiers they might have passed up in other circumstances, including some with criminal records or health problems.

Bergdahl's platoon commander reported he was unaware of the private's mental health, or previous enlistment, and told a hearing that Bergdahl had not created problems before his June 30 departure. But another former infantryman in the same platoon said he had raised concerns over the soldier's ability to cope in Afghanistan

It's certainly enough material for 8 episodes, as the military's deliberations continue. 

"You have these things that you think of as these monolithic institutions, like the Army, the Administration, the Taliban," Serial researcher Julie Snyder told The New Yorker. "And you break them all down, and you’re like, Oh, they’re all made up of just people. And it’s really interesting to start seeing it through the eyes of people."

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