Under the Radar

"Serial" Episode 6 - Bowe Just Can't Let It Go


Serial returned with "5 O'Clock Shadow," the episode that tries to explain the reason Bowe Bergdahl abandoned his post. Short version: earlier in the series, Bergdahl talked about the "danger" troops faced from incompetent leadership. Episode 6 makes it sound like he was a soldier who was able to shrug off the management issues and fouled-up communication familiar to anyone who's served in the military anywhere in world as long as mankind has been fighting wars. 

Men who served with Bergdahl describe him as a squared-up soldier, one who took his duties seriously, maintained his weapon and actually studied the Ranger manual. And, yet, he didn't quite fit in: crude humor made him uncomfortable, he listened to classical music and smoked a pipe when everyone else was taking a cigarette break (as seen in the photograph above, something that inspired one of his commanders to amusingly complain about "this f-----g Lawrence of Arabia s--t").

When General Kenneth Dahl debriefed Bergdahl after the prisoner exchange, his description of everything that led up to the moment when he abandoned his post ran to 380 pages. Bergdahl was deeply troubled by what he saw as a his commanders' refusal or inability to appreciate how they had put their men in harm's way and that indicated they might send his platoon on a suicide mission.

What's his evidence?

The crucial moment in his freakout seems to come when his battalion returned from a brutal 5-day mission to rescue a crippled MRAP. The soldiers didn't understand that MRAP parts were in short supply at this point and the brass wanted them to drag the carcass home to use for repairs. Everyone planned for an 8-hour mission and no one took a razor. What set Bergdahl off was Colonel Clinton Baker's greeting when the men returned to base. Bergdahl felt the men had performed admirably in difficult circumstances and managed to complete the mission with no casualties, but Baker's first words to the men were “What, you couldn’t shave?”

Most of the men shrugged it off and got on with things. It became a big deal to Bowe.

The next major incident came as the men were building out OP Mest. It was hot and miserable and their sergeants gave them permission to strip off some of their gear to make the work go more quickly. Unfortunately, Guardian newspaper photographer Sean Smith was embedded with the unit and his photos of the work were published online.

Colonel Baker went ballistic and demoted one sergeant and transferred two other. Bergdahl thought the Colonel overreacted and was concerned more about optics than the welfare of men who stripped down to more quickly build out a safe space for themselves.

Baker wouldn't speak to Serial, but his second-in-command Command Sgt. Major Ken Wolfe offers a compelling (and colorful) defense of Baker's reaction (Wolfe made the Lawrence of Arabia comment mention above). He maintains that slack discipline this early in a deployment can have a devastating effect on morale: “Do whatever the f--k you want, you want to shoot 15 people in My Lai go ahead.”

There's also some discussion of whether General Petraeus' counter-insurgency mission was doomed to fail with troops rotating out so quickly. Former infantryman (and now PhD) Jason Dempsey estimates that it would've taken "decades" for the program to work as described.

For the first time, it seems like the Serial producers don't have much sympathy for Bergdahl. Millions of troops in American history have believed their commanding officers were assholes and only one has used that belief as a reason to wander off and get captured by the enemy.

This episode ends with a promise that Bowe's backstory might offer some insight into his choices and that the podcast will get into that background in the next episode.

As of this week, though, it's: "Bowe, seriously, wtf?"



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