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“On Violence, what do you think of Serial’s second season on Bowe Bergdahl?”
We’ve been asked that question a lot, by friends and family, by people in the military and outside it, and by people we meet online. The whole gamut.
But usually we don’t say anything, and we haven’t written anything about Bergdahl since Serial: Season Two dropped. Which feels unusual because we dubbed Bowe Bergdahl’s release one-half of our most thought provoking event of the half year back in 2014, where we, mainly, debunked some instant criticism heaped on President Obama for securing Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.
So why not address Serial: Season Two sooner? Fear of the rabbit hole. I (Michael C) knew that as soon as I started listening, I’d be flooded with post ideas. And I was right. As I listened to the first episode, I was flooded with ideas, which I’ll now roll out over the next several months.
But before we get there, let’s start simpler. At the beginning. With the theme music. At almost exactly 4 minutes into episode one, the Republican candidate for President says:
“In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERS]”
Usually, this is where I would let out the snark on Donald Trump and lambast this position. Except I have to be honest: I’ve made this argument. At two separate parties, I prefaced my opinion on Bergdahl--really to convey the seriousness of what he did--by saying that, in the olden times, America executed deserters.
To be fair, just because someone is odious doesn’t mean their positions are similarly odious by default. We’ve gone at the reverse of this quite a bit in our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series. Just because Einstein said something doesn’t make it witty and just because Hitler said something doesn’t make it inherently evil.
I can admit though, I was wrong on this point. Just a moment of self-reflection reveals this to be a bad argument. And I have three variations on this theme.
1. We don’t do a lot of things in general we used to do.
For instance, slavery. America, Great Britain and all the colonial powers used to take people from their homes in Africa in chains, ship them across the sea, and hold them in bondage. This bondage was enforced through corporal punishment, torture and murder.
Society also used to sacrifice animals, which used to be a common part of religion, including the Abrahamic tradition. I mean, if you go back far enough in time, religions used to sacrifice people.
In almost every way, in every facet of society, the way we do things now is better than the past. That includes not shooting deserters. So yeah, we used to do a lot of things we don’t do any more.
2. We used to shoot people for a lot of crimes.
For instance, shoplifting, cutting down cherry trees, escaping multiple times as a slave, stealing cattle, or sodomy. So yes, we used to shoot deserters, but we used to shoot people for a lot of crimes we no longer use it for. So it isn’t a great argument.
3. We used to do a lot of things in warfare we don’t do anymore.
We’ll go into this in much more detail, but the most striking thing about the Bowe Bergdahl case, for me, is how much effort was expended in rescuing Bergdahl in the initial months after his desertion and capture. Literally, operations ground to a halt across Afghanistan to find a single soldier.
This just didn’t happen in prior wars. When B-29s flew over Germany in WWII, many of them didn’t return. Either because they were shot down, crashed or got lost. The Allies didn’t have the manpower to hunt down each missing plane. This applied to boats lost at sea and soldiers lost on the ground.
But warfare is different with an all volunteer force. We bring every single soldier back including their bodies. We’ll stop the war effort to do so, even if doing so would likely cause us to lose us the war. While the contemporary force refuses to admit this fact, we did not used to fight wars that way.
So Donald Trump is correct. We used to shoot deserters. We don’t anymore. That’s a good thing.