There's a shocking new twist in the story of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban and eventual ransom by the United States government. Since his return to the States, Bergdahl has been a cipher, offering no public comment on or explanation of his actions when he abandoned his post.
It turns out that he's been having long telephone conversations with screenwriter Mark Boal, the guy who wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, two movies that never fail to generate controversy around here when we write about them. Boal recorded the conversations with no plans to use them as anything besides notes for an upcoming screenplay about Bergdahl.
Well....2015 turned out to be the year the podcast broke out big with the launch of Serial, a true crime series produced by the folks behind the public radio program This American Life. Serial told the story of a high school girl's murder and the life sentence her boyfriend received for the crime and explored the possibility that he wasn't actually guilty. The program played like a combination between an audio version of the true-crime recreations on 48 Hours and an audiobook version of a really long New Yorker article. You probably know someone who was really into the first series.
Boal probably was himself, because he approached host/writer Sarah Koenig and offered to let her use the tapes of his conversations with Bergdahl for a new series. While Bergdahl didn't want to be interviewed for the program, he did give permission for the producers to use the taped phone conversations, messy affairs that feature Boal making snacks and using the microwave while talking to his interview subject.
When episode one debuted a couple of weeks ago, it seemed to some that Bergdahl was getting a platform to defend himself but Serial doesn't really work that way. Its producers are interested in exploring as many perspectives on a story as they can find and they've managed to interview a lot of the soldiers who served with Bergdahl and quite a few others involved in the rescue operations. Koenig also interviewed one of his Taliban captors.
We've got brief recaps of the first two episodes below and it's striking how no one's stories really line up. That may be faulty memory or it may be that Bergdahl's story isn't going to stand up to scrutiny. That's the mystery Serial promises to examine and hopefully solve this series.
If you're new to podcasts, there are several ways to listen. The easiest way may be to visit the website and click on the listen button. If you're an iPhone user, get the Podcasts app and you can subscribe to Serial and the app will let you know when a new episode is released. Android users should download the Stitcher app and subscribe that way. If you're a Pandora user on either mobile platform, the radio service is also hosting the current series and you can listen in the app. Koenig is an effective narrator and don't be surprised if you're hooked.
Episode 1 - DUSTWUN
The first episode sets up the story for anyone who hasn't been following the case, introducing listeners to Bergdahl and OP Mest, the hardscrabble outpost where he served in Afghanistan. The soldier tells Boal that he felt poor leadership was endangering his unit and hatched a crackpot plan to abandon his post and hike back to FOB Sharana. The episode ran before the Army announced it would pursue a general court martial. Some might say the popularity of this first episode just might have influenced the timing there.
His disappearance would cause a DUSTWUN (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown) alert and, when he reappeared, he'd be assured of getting debriefed by the brass he wanted to hear his concerns. If true, this was an idiotic plan and Bergdahl readily admits to his poor decisions and his delusions of being a "Jason Bourne" figure.
OP Mest is hardly what you'd call a garden spot.
Episode 2- The Golden Chicken
Things start to get interesting here. First, Koenig talks to a Taliban fighter (via a burner cellphone) and he tells a version of the capture that differs sharply from Bergdahl's story from episode one. She then interviews troops who served with Bergdahl and others who were involved in the search for him after he went missing. All of this is put in context with quotes from military communications that were part of the Wikileaks document dump.
The episode does a good job of explaining just how brutal the search was for the soldiers tasked with finding Bergdahl and how much danger they were in as they conducted raids in daylight and often without the kind of planning considered necessary for regular operations. It goes a long way towards explaining just how deep the resentment against Bergdahl runs in some military quarters and how his actions endangered the lives of the men he served with.
The series is sure to make more news in coming weeks and, while Bergdahl's attorneys insist the show is having zero effect on his court-martial, any statements he made to Boal that differ from what he told Army investigators will surely bring extra scrutiny at his trial.
New episodes premier every Thursday and we'll recap each episode going forward.