Some of you may remember my occasional blogging about the recently returned U.S. Army captive of the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. I wondered about whether his experiences were similar to those of other “redeemed captives” of eighteenth-century Anglo-American wars against Native people and their French allies, and why the U.S. media seemed to have so little interest in following up on his story. (As I suggested, the story was probably complicated and wouldn’t fit easily into a politically useful narrative for anyone on any side of U.S. politics.)
Serial, Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast, has been focused on his story in its second season, and the story it’s telling is indeed very complicated. Check out Koenig’s efforts to get Bergdahl’s story, and to fact-check it against the stories told by his Army colleagues, commanding officers, and sources with connections to the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The story she tell is of a young recruit with fairly weak ties to his fellow soldiers who were all in a bad situation in Afghanistan. Bergdahl became convinced that his commanding officers were corrupt, and decided to alert the U.S. military to the corruption by going “dustwun” (duty status whereabouts unknown) in order to get the attention of military leadership.
But Bergdahl’s story got a lot clearer this week (at least in my view) when Koenig released two episodes that focus on Bergdahl’s personal history and a psychiatric diagnosis that he received last year: schizotypal personality disorder. According to a psychiatrist who knows Bergdahl and who was given permission by him to discuss his case with Koenig, “It really does tell the story of Bowe, unfortunately.” (Listen to season 2, episode 7, “Hindsight,” parts I and II. The diagnosis is mentioned towards the end of part II at about 20 minutes in.)
Because of the excellent reporting of Michael Hastings nearly four years ago in Rolling Stone, I suspected all along that Bergdahl was a dreamy, perhaps delusional loner who was not at all a good fit for military life. He was a home-schooled kid who grew up in rural Idaho, and so had had little contact with any of the institutions of mass society before joining the U.S. Army in 2008. (Some of you may recall that he attempted to enlist in the Coast Guard in 2006, a misadventure that lasted only a few weeks.) He is a reasonably bright young man, but his mind was wholly untrained.
(My favorite detail from the “Hindsight” episodes last week, also in part II at 16:20, is that among the personal belongings Bergdahl shipped home to a friend was a copy of Atlas Shrugged, every grandiose fourteen year-old’s favorite book for a day and a half, until they think about its implications for twenty seconds. It would be funny if it weren’t for the serious consequences his paranoia and grandiosity brought him.)
At the end of part II, Koenig interviews his Army colleagues again, and most seem to agree with her that (as she suggests, after The Big Lebowski), “You’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an a$$hole.” In other words, they agreed with Bergdahl’s analysis that their mission was absurd and even counterproductive, but (in the words of one of them), “we didn’t walk off.” In other words, they stuck by their brothers. They did what military training is supposed to do: make soldiers fight for one another, if not for the larger animating cause of the war.
So yes, the story about what happened in Afghanistan is very complicated, but Bergdahl’s story turns out to be pretty simple. It’s sadder and a lot less interesting than I had hoped it might be.