Serial Season 2 Episode 11 Recap: Powerlessness and the Blame Game
Welcome to National Ave’s weekly Serial recaps. This recap covers “Present For Duty,” the Season 2 Finale.
The prevailing wisdom on why people cling to conspiracy theories in the face of all evidence to the contrary is that these beliefs help to make sense of an otherwise seemingly random and chaotic universe. If there is a secret cabal of insidious actors behind every major calamity in the world, then maybe life isn’t as scary as it seems. Presidents don’t just get assassinated. Buildings with hundreds, thousands of people don’t just get blown up and fall into rubble. Movie theaters and schools don’t just get shot-up by gun-toting maniacs. Bad things don’t just happen. They’re all orchestrated. There’s something larger at work here, and if there’s something larger at work, then you can be a part of the resistance to stop it. You can be in control.
This psychology exists beyond those corners of the Internet that believe Bush did 9/11 or the CIA killed Kennedy. We see it pervade our every day life. Take, for example, the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump blames the Other, the Mexican, the Muslim, the incompetent government official who doesn’t care about you. Bernie Sanders blames the billionaires on Wall Street, who only speak the languages of fraud and corruption.
Of course, both of these arguments are myopic. Donald Trump could kick out all the immigrants he wants, Bernie Sanders could put all the restrictions on the financial services industry that he could imagine, and this country would still be riddled with problems. Many American lives would still suck.
There’s no great fix. There’s no magic wand that can be waved that could just make it all better, if only enough people believed hard enough. Life is messy. Society is messy. And just when you think you’ve got it all worked out, there’ll always be something else that comes along, some destabilizing force, to which there are no easy answers.
We feel anger, we all feel anger, when war happens. When war, as Frank Edgar put it near the end of the episode, is “attended.” We want the fighting to stop, for peace to reign the whole world over, for all sides to sit down and hash this shit out without further bloodshed and anguish. But that’s hard. And we feel how hard it is.
We know that goal is virtually unattainable, so we feel powerless. There’s nothing we can do. We don’t know who to talk to, what letter we can write, what phone call we can make, that would bring about peace. The steps needed to get there, the kernel of truth it would require to get all parties to the table, feel intangible, a phantom, a fantasy.
Bowe Bergdahl isn’t a fantasy, though. He’s a real person who, on the surface, did a simple, wrong thing. He abandoned his post. He’s a traitor to his squadron. He freakin’ walked off in the middle of a war.
So we take that anger we have, the messiness inside of ourselves caused by the messiness of war, and direct it at this guy. Because what else are we going to do with it? It has to go somewhere. If we keep it inside ourselves we’re going to explode.
It’s easier to excoriate Sgt. Bergdahl than it is to reckon with the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan, or, for that matter, the War on Terror. It’s easier to take American righteousness as a given, a premise, and assume all that deviates from that is evil and bad and deserves to be punished. There’s a lot more existential soul-searching involved with those questions, while the Bergdahl case can seem black-and-white. You can go after him with everything you’ve got, avoid dealing with the sickness that underlies all of this, and sleep just fine.
But of course the Bergdahl case isn’t black-and-white. Hell, you couldn’t spend 11 podcast episodes investigating it if it was black-and-white, if it was simple to write off Bowe and just forget the whole matter entirely.
I cannot even begin to imagine the trauma of going to war, of being a soldier. “Foreign to my life experience” feels like the understatement of the millennium. If you’re a person who went through that, you deserve to be heard by your country, your story deserves to be told, your anger deserves to be recognized. The soldiers who remain angry with Bowe have their perspective, as his disappearance substantively made their lives more difficult, and nobody should try to talk them down from that.
But it’s up to all of us as a country to filter that anger, to understand where it’s coming from, and to make our own determination based on the facts, to figure out the best way to handle the paradox of a man who walked of his post right into five year hell-scape captivity.
Shit happens in war. People die. There’s a satisfaction in being able to blame one person or one entity, because it removes the necessity of having to dig deeper. Bowe became just another boogeyman another force of darkness that must be stamped out if we’re going to prevail, because he became associated with the enemy. Some believed he had Taliban sympathies, and thus his act of desertion became synonymous with the Taliban. If there are complications in his story, maybe there are complications in this whole war, in the whole ideology that fuels it, which makes it harder to stomach killing people in the name of it.
Life is full of paradoxes, of complexities and complications, and anybody in a position of power who tells you otherwise isn’t treating you like an adult. Often there are no perfect solutions, and each difficult decision inevitably leads to more destruction. Sometimes there is no comfort. The best we can do, then, is accept that. Learn to live with it. And try to do a little better each time.
-If you can’t tell from my writing, I really enjoyed this season. It didn’t make the cultural imprint of Season 1 because it shirked its “True Crime” trappings, but that doesn’t mean it was any less good. Good on you, Serial.