There's a certain theme of image versus reality in episode 6 of the Serial podcast, "5 O'Clock Shadow." The Army's image and reality on the ground, the image of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as a model soldier versus a deserter and traitor, and the image of the U.S. as seen by Afghanis all come up as conflicting issues in an episode that delved deeper into Bergdahl's reasons for walking off his post and into Taliban captivity in 2009.
We already know Bergdahl sees himself as a whistleblower of sorts, claiming that his goal was to catch the attention of higher-level Army officials and reveal wrongdoing and bad leadership. In "5 O'Clock Shadow" we hear more about that – namely, a battalion commander that Bergdahl believed could put his group in danger as retribution for making him look bad, and a perceived dissatisfaction with the direction of Army ground operations.
Bergdahl deployed to Afghanistan in the early days of Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, which aimed to win the support of Afghan villagers as a way to beat back the Taliban. As soldiers note in the episode, that often meant handing out candy and watercolor maps of Afghanistan to locals, not kicking down doors or shooting bad guys. In other words, it was far from the image those soldiers had when they signed up for the Army.
Under COIN the Army struggled to convince locals that they weren't there because they hated Islam, and instead wanted to join forces to combat a common enemy – soldiers on the ground struggled with an image problem much bigger than themselves or their platoons or battalions. COIN deployed them in more diplomatic roles, more nation-builders than enemy-slayers, and that wasn't what they were trained for.
Combined with a battalion commander that Bergdahl and his platoon-mates saw as adversarial, frustrations mounted. Most of the soldiers were able to shrug incidents off, but for Bergdahl, each one fueled growing anger and fear that led him to his whistleblowing plan. And even though many leaders saw Bergdahl as a model soldier – one who was physically fit, who studied the doctrine and fell in line – that image quickly changed when he walked away from his post and into an unprecedented chain of events.