Lessons From the Bergdahl Affair

What a podcast is teaching us about military recruiting, counterinsurgency strategy, and how we treat missing Americans.


Bowe Bergdahl walked off.

In the court of public opinion, this is the central fact all can agree upon—-that a 24-year-old Army private first class who had been in Afghanistan fewer than two months walked off his outpost one day and vanished.

Everything that happened between Bergdahl’s walk-off and the present moment, where he stands trial for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” has formed the basis of one of the most bizarre and dramatic tales of a missing soldier in recent memory. To say this case has become a political flashpoint is an understatement.

Enter Serial, the bi-weekly podcast series now devoted to chronicling the Bergdahl case. Fresh off an award-winning first season in which journalist Sarah Koening documented—and managed to reboot—the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the team dives headlong into the Bergdahl rabbit hole.

Koenig attempts in her now-trademark style to solve the mystery of how Bergdahl went missing (and whether he is telling the truth) and how he was eventually rescued. She talks with Bergdahl’s platoon mates, his friends back home, military officials tasked with looking for him, psychologists, diplomats, and members of the Taliban who were present when he was taken hostage.

Most importantly, Serial’s second season incorporates 25 hours of phone conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker), in which, among other things, Bergdahl describes how he was beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, left in a 6-by-6-foot cage, and still managed to survive for five years. As one psychologist noted, you have to go back to the Vietnam era torture tactics to find any comparison.

Meanwhile, Koenig gives a wide berth and understanding to his fellow soldiers, who searched for Bergdahl for weeks with no respite. These aren’t the kind of red meat interviews paraded on Fox News and CNN, but rather a fair insight into how Bergdahl both flummoxed and alienated his comrades, before and after his disappearance.

Through one man’s story, Serial deftly exposes the failure of the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that was en vogue in Washington but frustrated soldiers on the ground at the time. It also underscores the unsustainable pressure put on the armed forces to recruit and rapidly deploy and redeploy personnel on two war fronts. Furthermore, it shows, sadly, that the mantra “leave no American behind” is little more than a comforting cliche; reality is much more cynical.

Critics of Bergdahl have called the episodes “pure propaganda,” while others have questioned the agenda, given Boal’s intention of making Bergdahl’s story into a Hollywood movie. But for those of us for whom details are coin of the realm, the podcasts are a revelation. Here are three key takeaways so far:

1. Bergdahl should have never been let into the Army.

For the first few episodes we meet Bergdahl—an Idaho native who was homeschooled, spent much of his childhood alone, and escaped to the embrace of surrogate family as soon as he turned 16. Socially awkward, he was still considered a top recruit during and after boot camp because he lived, breathed, and dreamed of the life of a soldier, of adventure. He was morally and ethically driven.

But for all the advantages of Bergdahl’s unequivocal approach, there were downsides: he could be tone-deaf; he interpreted slights and judgements by leadership as “dangerous” and life-threatening to his platoon, even as his fellow soldiers were shrugging them off. He wanted to be a hero, even envisioning himself as a “Jason Bourne” who only planned to march off the outpost to get the attention he felt was necessary to right the wrongs.

“The lives of the guys next to me were literally, from what I could see, were in danger of something going wrong and somebody being killed,” Bergdahl told Boal.

Then, in Episode 7 we are brought through the details of Bergdahl washing out of Coast Guard boot camp. He was found one night in the fetal position, shaking and crying. He was given a psychological discharge following a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder with depression.” Later in the podcasts, a psychologist calls his malady “schizotypal personality disorder.”

A waiver would have been necessary for Bergdahl to re-enlist, but he got one. According to Koenig, the Army never looked at the note that said a psychological evaluation would be required before a waiver was granted. Bergdahl was upfront about what happened at the USCG, but desperate for recruits in 2008, the Army didn’t seem to care.

“Someone too mentally troubled to make it through [Coast Guard] recruit training shouldn’t have been enlisted in the Army on a waiver,” Marine Corps veteran and journalist Carl Prine tells TAC. “The Army owns a lot of this problem because if he didn’t stalk off into Talibanistan, he would’ve done something equally puzzling and self-destructive and likely to compromise a mission later.”

2. COIN Failed Everyone

In Episode 2we get the full sense of the search for Bergdahl which began immediately after he was found missing and continued for weeks, eventually engaging the entire brigade. “We were charging in these towns … going in with our guns blazing,” said soldier Jon Thurman.

Raids were conducted day and night. They were dangerous, as commanders were often “winging it” without a game plan, pulling into unfamiliar towns and villages. There were booby traps. MRAP vehicles were blown to bits. “It became apparent to us that the Taliban, and the Haqqani, knew we were pulling out all the stops to find him and were feeding false information into our informant networks, said Major Mike Waltz, who was in charge of a special forces team conducting raids at night based on intel—often not vetted—about Bergdahl.

“You got the most advanced military in the world throwing all this effort all this expertise and technology trying to find one person,” said Koenig. “It’s really something. But then they can’t find him, and then in some instances they are being played.”

She talked to (Ret.) Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and PhD who teaches at West Point. “You’ve got this great lumbering machine moving through and it can destroy anything face to face but it has no idea on the granular level what’s going on right below it,” he said, noting that the military could target and track networks but had no idea how they interacted with each other. That knowledge was what COIN strategy was supposed to buy, but they never got it.

“We rotated a few thousand dudes through every 7 to 12 months. There is no institutional knowledge—absolutely none. We were never there long enough to have … anyone fully engaged with Afghan politics.”

On the ground, in the platoon, COIN seemed to be playing out in a similar fashion. There were mixed messages about nation and trust-building, and there was a perception that soldiers’ hands were tied. Earlier reports that Bergdahl had turned against the war seem only half-right when you listen to the podcasts. He wanted a clearer mission, the ability to help the Afghans and kill the bad guys. This appears to be corroborated by his platoon mates. “Everybody was saying this is bullshit,” Bowe said during his interview, “this whole thing is stupid … what we’re doing here.”

3. Yes, We Leave Americans Behind

In Episode 5we meet the officials back in the U.S. tasked with leading the intelligence and diplomatic effort to get Bergdahl back. It turns out it is incredibly difficult to get people marshalled to help get Americans out of captivity—whether they are military or civilian. After the two-month search inside Afghanistan was called off, the search continued in the bureaucracy. The two women in charge of the personnel recovery office at SOCOM in Tampa said their office was underfunded and undermanned. And many officials up the chain just didn’t care.

The fact that Bowe was taken to Pakistan made things very difficult, and there were a lot of well-meaning people doing the best they could. But they “had to fight complacency [and] malaise” about all hostages, not just Bergdahl, apparently having to do with “circumstances of capture.”

“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of time I’ve heard ‘why should I care. He did that to himself, or she did that herself,’” said one of the recovery officials, who, not speaking directly about Bowe, said their job included “selling” the idea that a specific person should be rescued. This challenge was tripled, “even cubed,” in Bergdahl’s case, because to a person, it was believed that he “walked off” if not deserted, said another official.

Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a celebrated U.S. Army soldier who led the rescue mission for Bergdahl from the Pentagon and later testified about the dysfunction in hostage recovery, told Serial how disenchanted he had become with the human and bureaucratic ambivalence in all hostage cases.

“I was in uniform for 27 years, for me the notion of not leaving a soldier behind, you know that you, internalize that. And for me it just always a false assumption that America doesn’t leave Americans behind,” he said. “I’ve never been put in this ridiculous position before, of wait, there are these Americans that no one gives a f-ck about? Nobody is doing anything to get them home. Our greater bureaucracy is treating their families horribly, telling these families to shut up and wait.”

“To me it was bordering on criminal how we are treating our common citizens.”

The political sturm und drang in Washington involving several negotiated, then failed, swap agreements ahead of Bergdahl’s eventual release in June 2014, are surprisingly left unexplored in Episode 9, which otherwise excels at highlighting the late Richard Holbrooke’s early role in Taliban reconciliation and the frustrating diplomatic fits and starts that led to Bergdahl’s release. It would be interesting to hear how detractors like Sen. John McCain might have complicated his rescue (we know how much they would like to see him back behind bars today).

They might get their wish. If convicted on the charges, Bergdahl could face life in prison.

Whether Serial will change minds in the court of public opinion is uncertain, but it has gone a long way toward showing where Bergdahl had control of his complicated surroundings, and where they got the better of him. And it’s not over. The 10th episode is expected in mid-March.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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10 Responses to Lessons From the Bergdahl Affair

  1. Conserving What? says:

    One thing is clear at this point: Bergdahl was not kidnapped from his post by the Taliban. He walked away. His motives don’t matter; soldiers don’t have the right to dictate military policy. Nothing that our government did or failed to do to recover Bergdahl is relevant to–or an excuse for–what Bergdahl did, or relevant to what punishment Bergdahl should receive. Nor should Bergdahl be excused from consequences because he was immature or unstable. Nothing is more detrimental to military cohesion than lack of disciplne.

  2. Fran Macadam says:

    More incontrovertible evidence that proves our government is completely mismanaged and out of control. No wonder the idealistic who most believe the lies it serves up end up the most broken by the utter hypocrisy.

  3. Rossbach says:

    The “Operation Tar Baby” character of the efforts to rescue PVT Bergdahl is emblematic of US foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and nearly every other nation where we have intervened in the past 7 decades.

    The sooner we exit these places and abandon these insane policies, the fewer problems our servicemen will have in protecting our nation.

  4. vato_loco_frisco says:

    Another dented can seeking redemption in the military… I’ve been following the Bergdahl’s saga since his repatriation although I doubt I have the time & stamina to listen to the podcast. (Nice summary from Vlahos, however.) Life is prison is far too excessive a punishment for this troubled young man. Credit for time served under the Islamists is sufficient. Bergdahl should also be given the opportunity to wander off into obscurity for the rest of his life, which would benefit us, the public at large. But with a Hollywood movie a possibility, that might be wishful thinking.

  5. balconesfault says:

    Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of this whole affair, if one believes Bergdahl’s narrative … is that had he succeeded, and reached another outpost, and gone public with his criticisms of the way the campaign was being managed:
    a) most likely he’d have still been court-marshalled for desertion of his post
    b) most of the voices attacking Bergdahl today, and attacking Obama for having traded Talibanis for him, would be championing his cause, and calling him a martyr to the Obama Administrations campaign to cover up the mismanagement of the Afghan War.

  6. cjm says:

    Expect a presidential pardon — after the election.

  7. ek ErliaR says:

    I thank God I was in a conscript army not a professional army.

    In the old days, about 1968, if someone like PFC Bergdahl decided to wander away, got captured and then popped up again about the time the likes of McCain his ring knocking buddies were being released, then PFC Bergdahl would have been give his back pay and an honorable discharge as a matter of course. By definition, infantry PFCs in combat zones are completely expendable.

    By the way, McCain, of the long line of ring knocking McCains, did make a statement for his captors. We don’t blame him, we all knew we would have exactly the same. But his smearing PFC Bergdahl simply reveals what a miserable excuse for man McCain is.

  8. EliteCommInc. says:

    Never has so much political hay made from a nonevent.

    He was not a trader. He did a dumb thing. Amny commentary about his not having been in the military or or the intense efforts to find him (despite the fact that the military was going in guns blazing anyway — hence the walk away) is just mucking up reality. I am thinking of Medal of Honor winner Sgt Dwight Johnson


    based on the articles import he never should have been in the Army either.

    Here’s the ultimate point. We the US do not leave soldiers behind in the hands of an enemy. If I were a US serviceman and listened to the nonsense that has gone about one of our own, I would get out. And any member of Congress who so complains ought to hang his head in shame.

    What issues we have in our family belong in and to our family.

    This remains the aftermath of the whining about an inconsequential prisoner exchange.

  9. jamie says:

    What is a ring knocker?

  10. Charlie says:

    What is a ring knocker?

    I’d heard it used as a non-complimentary term for West Point grads (because of their class rings); apparently it also applies to graduates of the Naval Academy like McCain.

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