The moral of "The Captors"? Complex geopolitics are hard.

Serial Season 2 Episode 4 Recap: Complex Geopolitics are Hard

January 07, 2016 / by / 1 Comment

Welcome to National Ave’s weekly Serial recaps. This recap covers Episode 4 of Season 2, “The Captors.” 

“I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.” –Vice President Dick Cheney

The original sin of American foreign policy towards the Middle East is a fundamental lack of understanding of the people that live there. In fairness, the rest of the Western world has also committed this sin, particularly at the Paris Peace Conference, which basically gave control over territories in the Middle East and Africa to various Western powers following World War I. It was this mandate established arbitrary boundaries that delineated what would become modern day Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

You already know how this story ends. All of these countries are fucking messes. They are all fucking messes in their own unique way, but they are fucking messes all the same. Of course we didn’t do this on purpose. We didn’t lump various tribes and nationalities that ultimately have very little in common and might actually want to kill each other together into made-up countries because we’re evil. We did it because we just thought it would be fine. Expediency and naiveté, more than anything else.

George W. Bush, the president who launched the modern war on terror, was not a dumb or malicious guy. He was just arrogant. Destructively, tragically arrogant. He believed that through sheer force of will and might, American righteousness would usher in a new era of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. All we had to do was topple the Taliban and Saddam, drop a few strategically placed bombs, and everything will just work itself out. Nuance? Complexity? Dissent? Bah, humbug. You just don’t believe enough.

So you can see how this mindset rationalizes Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, waterboarding to itself: Our better-ness, our inherent nature justifies the horrible things to our enemies because it will inevitably lead to a brighter, safer world. If we make a mistake, perhaps imprison, torture, or blow up an innocent person, that’s sad but it’s in service of something unimpeachably noble, so it’s kinda alright. It’s this weird contradiction of “We hold ourselves to such a high standard that it’s okay to lower our standards.”

Of course the people who live in the Middle East don’t like us. We’ve bombed the shit out of their land, destroyed their homes, ruined their livelihoods, arrested their family members. “Well, your government is evil and some of the people who live among you are evil so we have to bomb you.” Yeah, but their world was far more stable and manageable before you came here. They had lives that maybe weren’t perfect, but have been completely upended by a war that they don’t even seem to fully understand because nobody has cared to explain it to them. All they know now is the pandemonium it has wrought.

The people who captured Bowe were justifiably pissed. They are pissed at America for what has happened to their country and how their people have been treated. Horror stories of what happens in American prisons paint a less-than-flattering picture of these “liberators.” Unfortunately, they take this anger out on Bowe, a guy who ultimately had nothing to do with any of it. He was just wearing the wrong uniform.

You see, though, the internal battle for the soul of these people, what David Rohde describes as a “civil war in the Islamic world” for the interpretation of the faith, in the moment when the old man says that he would eat the same piece of bread that Rohde had put in his mouth, that Rohde must be treated humanely because that is what the Prophet would want. It reflects the conversation we’re having in our own country, that we shouldn’t have to compromise our ideals in order to win this war. The Afghani-Pakistani people are having this same debate amongst themselves.

In this week’s episode, Sarah continues to ruminate on just how bad Bowe had it. She has been playing variations on this theme for weeks, perhaps as a response to the tons of rumors and insinuations that Bowe liked the Taliban, that he was sympathetic to them, that he maybe even enjoyed the time spent with them, and thus has not been adequately punished for going AWOL. This narrative is absurd to her (mostly because it is absurd), and she feels the need to rebuke it at every turn.

However, we’re hypocrites if we’re horrified by how Bowe was treated by his captors, yet excuse our own government’s treatment of our own prisoners. It’s not okay because we do it, and I think that’s a point that Sarah’s trying to make. There’s a lot of nonsense in the Taliban’s ideology, but they’re not wrong when they say that our hands are not clean, that we have committed atrocities in the name of our truth just as they have in theirs. This has created an endless cycle of violence, degradation, and chaos that nobody seems to be able to fully break out of. Just when you think peace and stability is within reach, it slips from your fingers and you’re right back in the muck and mire. FUBAR, as they used to say.

Stray Observations

­-“If you’ve been reading the paper, maybe you’re caught up on all this. If not, I have some phone numbers for experts you can call.” I always love The Koenig’s asides, and this one is no different, but the delivery of this particular quip felt accusatory. This is the war we’ve been fighting for over a decade, and the general public doesn’t seem to really understand it.

-“They wanted acknowledgement, so that’s what I’d give them.” It’s so easy for us to dehumanize our enemies. It makes it easier to swallow when we kill them. But for me, this was the most moving moment of the whole season so far. They just wanted Bowe to recognize their pain and see it as legitimate. I feel that. I get that. It’s so fucking human.

-There has been a lot of discussion of the tonal shift this season, but you really felt it this episode. Yes, the murder of Hae Min Lee is a serious matter, but last season felt like a fun murder mystery with our quirky reporter friend Sarah. This season, she has let go of this story needing to feel “fun.” She’s just telling it.