The first year that Bowe Bergdahl spent in the hands of the Taliban sounds like a living hell. Fortunately for Serial listeners, the podcast emerged much stronger from that fire. “Escaping,” the third episode of Serial Season Two, has a somewhat misleading title in that it was Bergdahl’s time in captivity, not his two brief escapes from it, dominate the hour. But the tight focus helped the show escape from the problems that made its first two episodes so frustrating.
Sure, host Sarah Koenig and interviewer/screenwriter Mark Boal are still interested in what’s going on inside Bergdahl’s mind, regardless of what real insight into his story this actually provides. But their armchair psychoanalysis takes a back seat to a thorough, riveting, harrowing account of the conditions of his captivity and a step-by-step (or crawl-by-crawl) account of his failed escape attempts. Those conditions are so grim—chained spread-eagled and blindfolded to a bed for months on end, enduring diarrhea for three and a half years without even rudimentary hygiene or medicine, knowing that the best-case scenario is that your captors leave you completely alone like a bag dumped in a closet and forgotten—that all Koenig really need do is rattle off the details for his state of mind to emerge organically. Perhaps because the nature of the situation strips Bergdahl’s thoughts down to their barest essentials, there’s little of the sense of wasted time that dogged the previous two episodes. Survive, evade, resist, escape: These four components of the military’s “SERE” training for POWs form the four walls of Bergdahl’s experience as concretely as the walls of his cell.
And though we know right away that his escape attempts were futile, they’re nonetheless exciting to hear about, as escape attempts almost always are. (Weren’t you rooting for El Chapo just a little bit?) Particularly compelling was how he used the conditions of his imprisonment to his own advantage during escape number two, at the end of his first year in captivity: using his piss and shit to stick rocks he’d carved away back to the walls; feeding a guard dog during his occasional trips to the latrine in order to win its trust; making use of any item he could get his hands on, from a nail in the wall to a stray key to pieces of wood and pipe; wielding his horrible stench as a weapon to keep his supplies away from prying eyes. Against all odds he pulled it off, despite his weakened condition and total darkness—only to stumble off a cliff while trying to dodge nearby settlements and spending the rest of his week-plus of freedom crawling along and hiding in holes while oblivious kids trotted past.
Koenig notes that this second attempt puts paid to the notion that Bergdahl’s a Taliban sympathizer. He’d already been badly beaten as punishment for his first escape; why risk going through that again if he thought these people had some good points? Indeed, the severity of his treatment also calls into question the Army’s decision to prosecute Bergdahl now. If all he’s really guilty of is being a big enough moron to think he could Jason Bourne his way from one base to another in order to call attention to a commanding officer he hated (for reasons still unstated), hasn’t he suffered enough?
But the escape attempts could also be seen as part and parcel of the instinct that drove Bergdahl to run in the first place. He’d already constructed a heroic narrative for himself in which he would address a problem of great moral risk (the Army’s horrible commanders) by taking a great physical risk (going AWOL and making his way through enemy territory). How could a man like that not take his chances trying to escape? Succeed or fail, it would feed into that same legend-in-his-own-mind attitude.
Koenig doesn’t note this possible link. However, she makes some connections between our behavior and that of the Taliban that were long overdue. Noting that some of the questions Bergdahl’s interrogators asked him were fringey and bizarre—are all American women prostitutes? Do they sleep with dogs? Is Obama gay—she wonders if their view of us is as skewed and filled with holes as ours is of them. She also notes that even as the Taliban abused and neglected their prisoner, they forced him to make propaganda videos favorably comparing his treatment to that received by Muslim prisoners in American prisons, at one point having him list a variety of the specific indignities and tortures visited upon captives at Abu Ghraib. It’s devastating not because of the obvious lie that he’s being treated better (the methods were different, but both sides shared the common purpose of sadism), but because the stuff he’s saying about America was true. How can we get on our high horse when we took that low road? And how can an institution that condoned this barbaric behavior prosecute Bergdahl for misconduct of a far less grievous nature?