Last week, listeners of the second season of Serial learned that host Sarah Koenig and her team would be examining the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. After voluntarily leaving his post in Afghanistan shortly after midnight on June 30, 2009, he was captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for nearly five years. At the end of the first episode, after hearing one side of the story in a series of interviews with the previously unheard-from Bergdahl conducted by screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Koenig closed with a juicy cliffhanger that in Episode 02 we’d now get to hear the Taliban’s account of Bergdahl’s capture.
One of the dangers of telling a story that also happens to be an ongoing and very active military investigation is that things can change fast. You have to be ready to act and react on the fly. So before the episode kicks off in earnest, Koenig pauses to update us on the latest news on the Bergdahl case that broke on Monday. That day, a top Army commander ordered Bergdahl to face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops stemming from his decision to leave his post. This means that the 29-year-old Army soldier now faces a possible life sentence for his actions – a possibility far more serious than both most expected and the Army’s investigating officer had recommended. It was hard not to come away with the impression that maybe Bergdahl’s P.R. gambit to tell his side of the story via Serial backfired – that the Army wasn’t too keen on having its dirty laundry aired in such a public manner.
Episode 02 is titled “The Golden Chicken,” a cheeky reference to the way the Taliban regarded their high-profile prisoner. Bergdhal’s capture was the ultimate coup, a score of 24-karat proportions. And, as promised, Koenig speaks to the Taliban to let them explain why that is. You see, kidnapping is a lucrative source of revenue for the Taliban. And while an American captive is a big enough prize, an American soldier is something else entirely. It’s like asking for a Nerf football for Christmas and waking up to discover that Santa gave you ownership of the New England Patriots. Koenig’s source describes Bergdahl, their Golden Chicken, as being worth more than the lives of 5,000 individuals. It’s the equation of terror. And it turns out that the American military was willing to sacrifice a lot for Bergdahl’s safe return, even the larger day-to-day mission in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s account of the wandering sergeant’s capture differs from his horse’s mouth version in almost every way, only thickening the Serial plot. Koenig herself says the discrepancies are impossible to fact check. We are in the land of He Said/They Said. The Taliban source says Bergdahl was discovered inside a kochi (a nomad tent) whose owners then informed the Taliban. When they arrived on the scene, the Taliban told Bergdahl they were the Afghani police. Did he think he was now safe? It’s hard to say his actions were confused. He both seemed to want their protection and attempted to flee. Some Taliban believed he seemed drunk. And once again, we’re no closer to understanding why Bergdahl did what he did. The fog gets thicker.
What’s clear is that the morning after his disappearance the Army snaps into all-hands-on-deck search mode. They suspect – rightly – that the Taliban will take their Golden Chicken to Pakistan, their home base where the U.S. military has no jurisdiction. They are essentially about to whisk him off the playing field, shifting directions along the way like a spy in an espionage movie furtively changing taxis so he won’t be followed. The race is on. The American military’s ethos of “No man left behind” is being tested to its breaking point. And it has the result of stalling all other counter-intelligence objectives in the region. Understandably, Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers, who are now forced to go on grueling and dangerous search missions in the baking heat for days and weeks on end, are pissed off at him. Their trust has been shattered. Morale plummets.
Koenig ends the episode teasing that on next week’s show she will chronicle the next year in Bergdahl’s life in captivity as he attempts to escape from the Taliban in Pakistan. That synopsis is certainly seductive enough to get me to tune back in. But at this point, with all of the inconsistencies popping up in this story, I think that Koenig might want to throw in an “alleged” before referring to Bergdahl’s escape attempts. I don’t totally doubt him, but I don’t know if I totally buy his story yet either. Which, of course, is just what those sly storytellers at Serial are counting on…