Thursday, January 14, 2016

L'Histoire du soldat

First, let's get the inevitable joke out of the way:  With the popularity of the online investigative program The Serial Podcast, we can only anticipate The Aleatoric Podcast and The Minimal Podcast and The Complex Podcast and The Neo-Romantic Podcast...

I came late to The Serial Podcast and found the first season to be fascinating, both as investigatory journalism (with both virtues and faults) and for its use of the medium, an audio-only program released in regular intervals over time with a both a continuing and a cumulative effect.  Through the gradually accretion of detail, an apparently closed story opened itself up through first minor irritations in the established narrative and then through the gathering sharpness of texture and features, leading to additional evidence and doubts and, perhaps, plausible alternative narratives that have actually invited revisiting of an old case.  Of course, it's of foremost importance that a justice system is shown to be an instance for increased justice,  but as the investigation here was not far from a detective story, with the combination of real leads and false trails and the persistent and skeptical voice of the investigator (here journalist Sarah Koenig): exactly the elements that make the genre so engaging.  I've always been fond of radio drama and can't wait to hear where she leads the story next. As a composer, used to musical works in which attention is sustained for minutes, perhaps tens of minutes in a single evening's stretch,  I'm definitely impressed when encountering work that sustains interest over an hour, and then from one week to the next, even as, in this case, the story came to no clear conclusion. Reasonable doubts and all that, perfect thing to listen to while cooking or copying music.

In the second season, as far as we can tell from the first four episodes, not only the subject but the form is altogether different from the first. With the public announcement immediately before the first episode was broadcast that the subject, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, would be prosecuted by a US Army court martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, listeners were made clear of this difference. The legal process is ongoing, not revisited history, and the basic elements were established:  Bergdahl did break the Army's rules and walk away from his post.  Whatever one thinks of the presence of US troops in Afghanistan or of military conventions in general, it was a naive and stupid thing for an individual soldier to have done.  If he had legitimate criticism of his superiors, as someone who had signed up for an enlisted position and most likely been drilled and re-drilled with the rules of organization and his expected conduct in that position, he should have had a better sense of the actual resources and limits permitted him.  We can agree that he was treated horribly in an astonishingly long captivity (especially for someone with such limited linguistic skills or cultural preparation), provided no useful intelligence to his captors, and did try to escape when escape was possible.  I think Koenig could have established all of that in a single episode and that would have been that for the Bergdahl story. But my impression is either that she's got something larger and longer in the works, or she really has no idea where the story is going to go except for a vague description of a story that "spins out in so many unexpected directions" and "extends far out into the world.  Her notice this week that the story would now continue on a bi-weekly rather than uni-weekly basis, with at least one additional previously unplanned episode in order to accomodate material previously unknown to her, doesn't decisively support either view.   The four episodes so far have expanded the topic in concentric rings around Bergdahl, giving his story more texture, but my gut feeling is that there is very little more there, that it won't continue to drop substantial details and doubts about that individual's soldier's story, but I think we may well learn more of some larger stories about, for example, Pakistan's internal relations, and its relationship to its neighbor Afghanistan and to the United States, an ugly story about which we don't learn enough.  My guess is that the Army will convict Bergdahl — I don't know how they could remain within their own rules and not do so, such is the nature of institutions like the Army — but hope that his time, deprivation, and torture in captivity be treated as punishment enough. If, however, Koenig decides instead to tighten the circles of the story back around Bergdahl, there are some cultural questions that could be usefully explored about the background of a small town kid from Idaho, home-schooled, from an Orthodox Presbyterian family who would spend time in a Buddhist monastery, a cyclist in car country without an auto driver's license, someone who'd given up studying martial arts and fencing for ballet.  The idea that someone with that background could sign up and be expected to fit into the institutional life of a rigorously hierarchical social organization like an Army strikes me as unlikely, but it does also strike me as perhaps piece and parcel of the same kind of confused "patriotism" that one too often encounters in the US today (see: militias, tea baggers, Bundys....)  In any case, I'll keep listening: I like forms that defy my predictions.

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