Serial: Podcast Responses

Serial 2: Episodes 7 and 8

In hindsight, everything is 20/20 and now knowing Bowe’s past, he should have never been allowed to serve in the military. Or at the very least, serve without any therapy to upkeep his mental health.

As mentioned by Sarah Koenig in episode eight, Hindsight Part 2, of Serial season two, Bowe’s past was a potent cocktail mixture with the potential to harm both his present and future. Which it did.

For reference, Bowe grew up in the isolation of a 40 acre home outside of a small town where he was homeschooled by his mother. He was a shy kid who didn’t develop the skills learned through socialization until well into his adolescence. It was around age 16 that Bowe began thinking of who he was and what type of man he wanted to become. He would study the behaviors of the people around him and do outlandish things to invoke reactions from his friends and family. Using their reactions, Bowe began to form a sense of the world around him and relentlessly attempted to stick to it. He felt it was a person’s duty to make the world a better place. If you knew there was a problem going on but didn’t attempt to fix it, you were not a good person. Bowe used his moral code as a measurement for everyone, so it should not have been a surprise when people failed to measure up. But for Bowe, it was unacceptable and negatively affected his interactions with people and government institutions.

This could be observed in every interaction Bowe has had with the military. From his attempt to join the coast guard to the moment Bowe walked off base. Bowe was a protector and in his head that meant being the hero by any means necessary. And while his heart was in the right place, his head was discombobulated.

In Bowe’s own words, “my mind did get lost in fantasy. I wanted to be a soldier, but I wanted to be a soldier back then,” as in he wanted to embody the romanized ideals of a soldier, “I wanted to be World War II soldier. I wanted to be, you know, 1800s soldier. You know, I wanted to be a samurai soldier, a fighter, warrior …  more than anything, I wanted to be a kung-fu, you know, fighter.” Bowe wanted to be the voice of the people and fight evil or as he said in episode 6, 5 O’Clock Shadow, “We should be out there just killing these people who are shooting at us, killing these people who are…just don’t care about Afghan people … killing the bad guys.” And as violent as that sounded two episodes ago, now knowing Bowe’s ideology justifies it a bit. Bowe wanted so badly for the army to be the good guys he had read them to be in the history books. But the army Bowe joined was not the armies of the past but, as Bowe coined, a “modern” army. And the the modern soldier was not the protagonist of someone’s World War II novel charging into battle for the good of the people, but a “brainless private that does whatever the government tells him to do, go here, go there, go fight these people. He’s just a tool.” At least that’s how Bowe saw it. And that contradicted every philosophy Bowe followed.

Taking a page from John Galt in Ayn Rand’s fictional novel Atlas Shrugged, Bowe wanted to temporarily shut down the base with a DUSTWUN in order to rectify the chain of command. Bowe wanted to put a stop to his commander’s immoral behavior as Jon Gal did with “the machine” in order to fix the world’s economy. But reality is not as idyllic and rigorous as novels seemed to proclaim. And Bowe knew this, or at least in hindsight after reflecting on his past actions, knew this. But at the time before the DUSTWUN, he knew nothing.

In one of his last emails home before capture, Bowe wrote, “It is not the being of value who fails the system, it is the system that has failed the man. For man should not stoop to fit the system, but the system should be made and remade to fit the man who holds value as worth. I will serve no bandit nor liar, for I know John Galt and understand. This life is too short to serve those who compromise value and its ethics. I am done compromising.” Bowe was through putting his life at risk and would no longer stand for the danger that was, as felt by Bowe, the vengeful Battalion Commander Clint Baker.

But if the base’s leadership was as damaged as Bowe exclaimed, why was Bowe the only soldier to act as irrational as he did? Because Bowe was the only soldier who saw the Battalion  Commander’s actions as threatening. While other soldiers did agree their missions were dangerous and Battalion Commander Clint Baker moustache critique was superficial, it was widely understood that his behavior was normal as far as military standards went.

And after the results of a 706 sanity board, mental health assessment, conducted by an army forensic psychiatrist on the past actions of Bowe returned as schizotypal personality disorder, things started to make sense. Those with schizotypal personality disorder lack close relations and misinterpret events, perceiving them as more personal than they are. They’re eccentric and believe they’re the exception to reality due to existential powers and a warped view of the world. If left of untreated in a stress inducing environment the diagnoses worsens. One of the major symptoms being paranoia, which would explain Bowe’s irrational fear of Battalion Commander Clint Baker.

So, with a proven mental illness, how was Bowe allowed to join the US army in the first place? Simple, the army need quantity, more soldiers, over quality, regulation vetted soldiers. In fact, according to Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a retired army psychiatrist, the oversight in Bowe’s recruiting process was normal. Information passed from one branch of the military to another was often incomplete due to a failed network system. And if the recruiter had known, it would have been treated like a swat on the wrist with one enforced behavioral session. Because it wasn’t the office of recruitment who determined if a person could handle the joining the army, but basic training. And by physical standards, Bowe was perfect.