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Last year, NPR’s Serial podcast explored the case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore high school student convicted of first degree murder following the 1999 disappearance and death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. The series was so successful that it not only spawned countless parodies, but also a new subgenera of podcasts riffing off of host Sarah Koenig’s earnest-but-oh-so-NPR style. Many people wondered how they’d follow-up this year: would season two cover another murder, or would they apply the same treatment to an entirely different subject, as they intimated numerous times?
Last month, we found out: Koenig and crew are spending this season investigating the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the US Army soldier who left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network before being released in exchange for a number of Taliban members in 2014. That exchange was immediately controversial and became more so as the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture began to trickle out, as well as the costs of the attempts to rescue him (six soldiers died during operations to find him). Indeed, since the series premiered, the US Army has launched a court-martial against Bergdahl, charging him with desertion and endangering his fellow troops. More recently, his case has been cited by some of the Republican presidential candidates — including Donald Trump, who’s referred to him as “a dirty, rotten traitor” since at least August — as a textbook example of the Obama Administration’s fecklessness and America’s decline in general.
So far, the backbone of the season has been a series of interviews with Bergdahl conducted by author Mark Boal, in which Bergdahl details his motivations, actions, and experiences. That such interviews exist at all is rather amazing, but the show weaves them together with a great many other material, including interviews with some of the soldiers from his unit (who almost universally have contempt for him), other Westerners held by the same Jihadi networks, and even some members of the Taliban. The podcast’s website has a host of other information and media, as well.
According to Bergdahl, his desertion was a bone-headed attempt to expose gaps in security that went horribly wrong even before he was captured. He claims — and there is some corroborating evidence to support this — that he escaped once but was recaptured. Interestingly, the SERE team who debriefed him after his release has backed-up at least some parts of his story, that he was subject to terrible abuse by his captors, and stated that Bergdahl provided them a great deal of useful intelligence since his release.
Have you followed the series? Based on the material presented so far, it seems unlikely to me that the worst versions of Bergdahl’s story are true — i.e., that the was a Taliban sympathizer and/or collaborator — though it’s also fairly clear that very nearly everyone involved has reason to believe that. But even if Bergdahl wasn’t as bad as some claim, that hardly excuses his decision to leave his post, nor the skewed nature of the prisoner swap of him for five Taliban figures. I’ve found it fascinating, but it’s also lacked the suspense and addictive nature of the first series.
What do you think?Published in