Serial Season 2 Episode 2 Recap: Saving Private Bergdahl
Welcome to National Ave’s weekly Serial recaps. This recap covers Episode 2 of Season 2: “The Golden Chicken.”
A staple of American rhetoric since our country’s inception is that what separates us from the rest of the world is our unwavering commitment to certain principles. We’re better, we’re exceptional, because we believe in unassailable values, as dictated and enumerated in our founding documents.
There has been a lot of discussion these past few weeks about those very “American values,” what they are, who they’re for, and how they should influence our policy. While this conversation was sparked by the absurd-if-they-weren’t-so-dangerous policy proposals of a guy who may actually be allergic to nuance, it’s a debate that gets to the core of this War on Terror: What are we willing to give up in order to win? How far is too far?
It’s not such an easy question. Reasonable people can have a fairly healthy debate about where that line is. One can be comfortable with our drone program, but uneasy about Guantanamo. You could believe that we should maintain a continued military presence in the Middle East, while also wish that the NSA would maybe stop collecting our emails and text messages. It’s an uneasy balance. What is clear, though, is that our unimpeachable rights are only unimpeachable when it’s easy. When there’s danger afoot, well, we’re willing to negotiate.
And that’s fine! It actually is (to a certain extent). Absolute adherence to any ideology, noble though it may be, inevitably leads to disaster. Freedom of speech doesn’t protect your right to shout fire in a crowded movie theatre. Freedom of religion doesn’t protect your right to ritually sacrifice a child. There are always limits.
Which is what makes the Army’s strident commitment to “No man left behind” so striking. We’ve done the cost-benefit analyses of upholding every single one of our values over the course of the past fourteen years, and across the board we’ve chosen to compromise. On this one, though? Hell no. It doesn’t matter the cost. We’re getting our guy back.
This is not only a question of nobility or righteousness, although that promise is noble and righteous. The Army needs this policy on a practical level. In order to follow commands to put themselves in harm’s way, each soldier needs to know that their life is valued, that they’re not merely being used as cannon fodder. It’s how they know that commanders do not make these decisions lightly and that if they’re ordered to walk into danger, it’s for a damn good reason. If a soldier gets captured, well, it was probably a series of Army decisions that got them there, so it’s the Army’s obligation to get them back.
Which is what makes Bowe’s case so abnormal. He did this to himself. He wasn’t on some mission, he was off the freakin’ reservation. Nobody sent him out into the desert like that. He made that decision completely of his own accord. Theoretically, the Army didn’t owe him a thing. He broke the most basic contract of his service, failed to uphold his end of the bargain, why should the Army have to uphold theirs?
Well, because it would be a bad look. Forget honor or loyalty, imagine having to explain to the country, “Well, one of our guys got captured, but he went AWOL, so screw him.” Who knows how the public would react.
Then again, the public has come to accept a whole lot. Most people don’t really give a shit about the NSA surveillance program, or Guantanamo Bay, or our drone program. It’s easy to forget when engaging in these big, complex, ideological conversations that these conversations are usually being held by a rather small percentage of the population. Most people choose to not even engage. They have their every day lives to worry about.
For the Army, though, for the people tasked with searching for Bowe, this was their every day lives. This episode did a great job creating a vivid image of just how much of a shitshow this search and rescue operation was, of all the miscommunication and narrowly avoided catastrophes that dominated those few weeks. You want “No man left behind”? Well, this is what that looks like. It’s dozens, if not hundreds of people, putting themselves in danger, to get one guy back.
I mean, you can hear it in their voices, years later. They were pissed. I mean, they’re trying to hold back, but you could hear it in that one guy who was talking about how some people wanted to shoot Bowe the moment they found him. He’s so matter of fact about it. Sarah is incredulous, and he’s just like, “Yeah, we wanted this guy dead.” This search single-handedly made their lives awful for weeks.
This anger is understandable. Not the self-righteous, self-serving anger of politicians and businessmen posing as politicians who want to exploit Bergdahl’s story to prove their “toughness.” But of the guys who had to live like dogs for weeks on end, putting their lives at risk, because a member of their battalion made a colossal error in judgment. How else are they supposed to feel?
On the other hand, there is something beautiful in the institution’s commitment to its values. We live in a confusing time, and the way out doesn’t seem entirely clear. So there is something comforting in the Army keeping its promise to its troops, even when it’s hard, even when the guy in question might not altogether deserve it. There are some things we hold on to because we know they define us, characterize who we are as a country, because we fear that if we didn’t, if we let go, we wouldn’t recognize ourselves anymore. And who knows what happens then.
-“Of all the desert joints, in all the provinces, in all of Afghanistan, he walked into their’s.” The Koenig strikes.
-“I’m laughing here, as if I get the joke. I don’t.” The Koenig strikes again.
-An AT-AT reference, because we all haven’t heard enough about Star Wars this week.
-I’m going to be out of the country next week, so this recap may be a bit delayed. If I mysteriously disappear, tell Sarah my final wish was to be the subject of Serial Season 3.