Bowe Bergdahl and the Hero's Journey

Bowe Bergdahl set out to be a hero. In the end, he’s been mostly vilified and the idea of bestowing the title of “hero” on him is offensive to some.

Ironically, in the literary sense, Bowe’s journey closely mirrors the traditional monomythic journey, sometimes called “The Hero’s Journey” as outlined by the late scholar Joseph Campbell.  We can find this formula is stories and epic poems from all cultures. 

It can be hard to make a real-life story bend to the conventions of fiction or myth, but there are a striking number of parallels between his tale and that of other monomythic protagonists like Ulysses, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, and even Luke Skywalker.

A simplified version of the Hero's Journey (Wikimedia commons)

A simplified version of the Hero's Journey (Wikimedia commons)

Campbell identified 17 steps that most mythological heroes take on their journey. When scholars and critics write about the Hero’s Journey, they follow a similar pattern.

I won’t argue what parts of Bowe’s account are accurate and which are embellished. After all, he is the primary source for this story, in some cases the only source.  But as told in Serial season two, Bowe’s venture into and out of captivity hit many of the same beats in Campbell’s formula.

Let’s use the term “hero” loosely here, as a synonym for “protagonist” and not for a soldier decorated for valor. Not every box will be checked, not every event will come in order, and some may require loose interpretation – but let’s see how closely Bowe’s tale follows the monomythic journey.

1. The ordinary world – If you think about it, just about every story starts here. Bowe lives a mundane life in rural Idaho, but dreams of something bigger for himself.  After his failure in the Coast Guard, he joins the Army, is shipped to Afghanistan, and gets stuck at boring OP Mest. 

2. Call to adventure – Let’s interpret “adventure” or “Bowe’s calling” as his desire of being a great combat warrior, whatever that means to him. Or, one could interpret this call as the perceived need to protect his unit (which, he’s said, sparked the DUSTWUN plan). In myth, such an opportunity presents itself to the protagonist and sets the story in motion.

3. Refusal of the call – Most mythic heroes first refuse to act or take part in the adventure, until something propels them to set off to fulfill their destiny.  While deployed, Bowe struggles at first with the realities of the mission. Concurrently, he develops a fear that his unit will be put in unnecessary danger.  This might be one of those times where we have to bend things to fit the formula of the monomythic journey. An argument can be made to swap this step for number four…

4. Meeting the Mentor – "Mentor" can mean many things. In a fictional version, the Army private might meet a wise, old villager or an Afghani policeman who encourages him to take action.  As far as we know, there was no such person in real life, except, maybe for the boot camp commander he admired so much. If Bowe is seeking perfection as a soldier, this sergeant has shown him a path. But what if we change our view of what a “mentor” is – someone who pushes the protagonist into action? This person could be Lt. Col. Clint Baker. His dressing down of Bowe’s unit on two occasions convinced Bowe he must heed the call.

5. Crossing the threshold – Here the mythical character moves into a new world that is magical, ethereal, or mysterious.  This is the “unknown world” or the “special world.” At this point, Bowe literally leaves the safety of OP Mest and travels into the desert, into enemy territory, into an unknown world.

6. The belly of the whale – As the protagonist moves into this new world, he is immediately swallowed up because he is both unfamiliar with the world and he has overestimated his ability. As Bowe said, it only took 20 minutes before he knew he was in over his head and he couldn’t turn back.

7. Tests, allies, and enemies – It is a matter of hours before Bowe is captured. For much of his remaining journey he will navigate the maze of figuring out which of his captors are cruel, which are kind, and which are indifferent.

8. Approach the innermost cave – In myth, you can imagine a knight or sorcerer walking into an evil castle or a forbidden forest. On this point of his narrative, Bowe is taken to the first of his many detention locations and will confront his captors and torturers.

9. The ordeal/The road of trials – Usually the action-packed part of any monomyth tale, as the protagonist begins to prove his worthiness by solving puzzles and fighting off enemies. Bowe’s recollections of his two escape attempts and his 8-9 days in hiding fulfill this part of the formula.

10. The Abyss – Here our protagonist is at his lowest point, at which he undergoes a kind of death only to be reborn. The final four years of Bowe’s captivity – the physical abuse followed by neglect and sensory deprivation – are unquestionably the greatest personal consequence of his actions. Some would call it a fate worse than death.

11. Transformation – In myth, this point marks the beginning of the hero’s journey back to the ordinary world. He is now "worthy." It’s hard to say that his time in captivity bestowed Bowe with some supernatural insight or other reward (not even his momentary enlightenment looking up at the stars as recalled in episode 11), except perhaps highly attuned survival skills.

12. The ultimate boon – In any great legend, the hero finally captures the thing he journeyed into the unknown world for (the magic sword, the Holy Grail, the kidnapped heroine). Here is one of the great ironies of Bowe Bergdahl’s story: Though having done the most unconscionable thing – leaving his post and endangering his unit – his desire all along was to demonstrate he was an exemplary warrior.  Over his five years in brutal captivity, Bowe instead proved himself to be, as Sarah noted, an exemplary POW. His attempts at resistance, minimizing his own propaganda value, and the mere fact he survived those conditions alone are hard to deny.

13. Magic flight/rescue from without – It’s time to make a break for it. The protagonist must take his reward and cross the threshold back to the ordinary world. In myth, the hero is usually helped by an ally who provides rescue when it’s desperately needed (think Han Solo picking off Darth Vader so Luke can blow up the Death Star). Who provides Bowe’s rescue? There was a large cast of unseen characters from Tampa to Germany to Gitmo to Qatar, but it’s US Special Forces that chopper in and free him from the Taliban.

14. Crossing the return threshold/master of two worlds – The hero must return to the ordinary world and share the boon, the goal of his quest. One interpretation could be Bowe’s value to the Army upon his return. Serial reports that Bowe was able to provide intelligence, some of which was actionable. Moreover, the team of military and medical experts at Landstuhl who analyzed this "exceptional POW" gained unprecedented insight into the effects of his lengthy and unique captivity. 

15. Freedom to live – The final step in the monomythic journey. In some stories, this is where the newly-minted hero lives comfortably in the ordinary world he was dissatisfied with in step 1. Here, Bowe’s story is incomplete and not guaranteed to finish the same way as tales of yore. Bowe’s “freedom to live” means to return home and live his life. For most mythic heroes there is an atonement, and Bowe has yet to face his.  Rather than being heralded (as he hoped he’d be at FOB Sherana 20 hours after the DUSTWUN), Bowe remains a divisive figure in American culture. Whether he is convicted and serves his sentence, or whether he is acquitted outright, Bowe will eventually "go home" (whatever and where ever that means).

Does this mean that Bowe Bergdahl is a “hero?” Not in the real world, in the eyes of servicemen and their families. Not on the pages of Reddit or the streams on Twitter.

But does the story of Bowe Bergdahl portray him as a hero in the literary sense, having seemingly traveled the classical “Hero’s Journey?” It’s an intriguing question. Everyone’s interpretation is different, and everyone’s is correct. The word “hero” has a moral attachment to it. Was Tony Soprano the hero of his story? Was Walter White? Was Michael Corleone? It depends on whom you ask.

Of course, Bowe’s story has at least one more chapter that remains to be written. Maybe we should wait until then to decide.