I love Serial.
I am an Audible book junkie, so listening to Serial comes sort of naturally.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Serial is a podcast produced by the people who do This American Life. If you haven’t gone down the Serial rabbit hole, you need to.
My focus right now is on Season Two of Serial.
Start right there. I think there are ten episodes. You can binge-listen, which is my favorite way to do it.
When I first saw that this was about Bowe Bergdahl, I thought, “Oh, gee. Army shit. I don’t care much about Army shit. I won’t understand most of it, and well. . .”
But I listened anyway, because you never know with Serial. They start with something and then you just don’t know where it will end up.
Here’s the summary (but it is not any substitute for actually listening to it).
Bowe Bergdahl is a former US soldier who went missing from his post in Afghanistan (2009) and was captured by the Taliban and held for five years before being freed (2014) in a prisoner trade (they got five Guantanamo detainees and we got Bowe).
After he was freed, amidst all the media hype, stories began to filter out that Bowe wasn’t captured in battle. He walked away from his post willingly. This was disturbing, of course.
For some reason (Obama-hatred?), the right picked this story up and ran wildly off into the sunset with it. Their version became that Bowe had become a Muslim, defected to the Taliban, and generally was a traitor, and that multiple soldiers were killed trying to find him. Hence, President Obama, naturally, since he was a secret Muslim, traded away these very dangerous prisoners to get Bowe back where he can do secret spying things in the US. Or something like that. (None of these things are true at all.)
The truth is not quite that simple, and for most folks, not nearly as cool to read about or listen to.
However, considering what we talk about here quite a bit, it’s very, very interesting.
Bowe’s explanation for what he did and why he did it is a story of idealism taken to extremes. And before you say, well, this is just what he says so how can we believe that, go listen to Serial’s account. They fact-check everything to the point that it is exhausting. Bowe’s story has been checked, double-checked, and there is no reason not to believe him.
To understand it, you have to go back in time.
Here is where Bowe Bergdahl grew up in Idaho.
There are no close neighbors, apparently. The media describes the place as “isolated.” They were “nearly off the grid.”
And here’s a photograph of his parents before Bowe was captured. (After the capture, his father grew a beard and learned to speak the language of the Taliban in an effort to communicate with them, all very politically controversial, of course.)
They are Presbyterians. The typical theology embraced by Presbyterians is Calvinism. I wasn’t a Calvinist. I was in the “whosoever will may come” camp, the “Jesus died for everyone” group. This is called Arminianism. Salvation is for everyone, anyone who will ask for it.
Calvinists are very different. They believe that Jesus only died for the elect, for those who were predestined to believe.
In their view, you are either elect or you are not. If you are, there is nothing you can do to reject the gospel. You’re special, chosen. If you are not elect, there is nothing you can do about that either. You are going to hell, period.
It’s a very black-and-white theology. The world is divided sharply between the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black ones.
Bowe did not just grow up attending a Presbyterian church. Many folks do that and they are fine and in spite of that Calvinist view, end up reasonable people.
Homeschooled, he was taught to read St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine and the Bible. For his father, everything was defined in terms of “is this the will of God or is it not.” There was no middle ground. There was no nuance. This whole “will of God” stuff permeated everything they did. They talked about it a lot, these black-and-white ethical ideals.
Bowe did poorly at his studies and spent much of his time in the wilderness surrounding their little house, pretty much alone. He became enamored with the idea of valor, of proving his manhood, of being a hero. And the heroes he admired included adventurers (like Bear Grylls) but also the warriors of old.
Reaching adulthood, he went to France and tried to join the French Foreign Legion. They wanted nothing to do with him, apparently, and he came home after a few days. Nobody really knows what happened.
Then he joined the Coast Guard. He didn’t make it through boot camp.
I want to stress this.
Bowe couldn’t make it through boot camp in the Coast Guard. He had an emotional breakdown and was discharged.
That should have been the end of the relationship between Bowe Bergdahl and the United States military. However, it wasn’t.
One year later, he joined the Army.
Think about this for a second. He couldn’t make it through boot camp in the Coast Guard due to psychological problems, and they let him join the Army. Can we lay this at his feet, or do we need to lay this at the feet of whoever waived his psychological history and let him in the Army?
It was like the Army was begging for this. They sent him right straight to Afghanistan.
Bowe, the Calvinist-raised morally-rigid misfit, goes to Afghanistan and guess what? He has problems. He was looking for valor. He got boredom and authority figures he wasn’t fond of and nothing that resembled “war” in his mind.
He decided that the situation was fraught with danger for himself and his comrades because he believed that the officers over him were incompetent (hell, they let him in the Army, remember) and that the only way he could get the attention of anyone higher up was to cause an incident.
So, that’s what he did.
I will repeat here that I am barely scratching the surface of this story. Go listen to Serial. You can hear Bowe talk about all this, hear his comrades talk about it, hear the Army officials talk about it. You’ll learn a lot about the military mindset, about international negotiations and how fragile and fucked up they can be, about politicians and how fucked up they can be.
What has intrigued the hell out of me though is that this young man grew up in a rigid religious home with parents who saw the world as pretty much evil (in the hands of the devil), given ideals that allowed for no tolerance or compromise ever, isolated from society, homeschooled, and was almost entirely “off-grid” roaming about in the “wilderness.”
It fucked him up. The psychiatrist who testified at his trial said it did. It fucked him up.
In the end, there was a trade and Bowe came home.
And last fall, he was court-martialed. I read a good bit about his court-martial and I really have come to the conclusion that they did the right thing in the end. He was given a dishonorable discharge and fined about a year’s salary, but no prison sentence on the grounds that he already served a prison sentence. Bowe’s days of hunting for adventure via the United States military are over.
I hope he finds healing and peace. I hope the US military has done something to make sure that nobody else can join the military with such a goofed up history. His comrades seem to have come to grips with what happened and even those who were injured have found a measure of peace.
There are consequences to the way you choose to raise kids.