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Stunning New Podcast Investigates 'The Line' Separating Combat From War Crimes

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last month saw the release of a new Apple original podcast series called "The Line," about Eddie Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL who was charged in 2018 with committing war crimes. It's hosted by Dan Taberski and produced by Oscar award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney's production company. Critic Nick Quah says it's a tremendous documentary about moral injury and the American military.

NICK QUAH: The title of the new investigative podcast from Alex Gibney's Jigsaw Productions, "The Line," refers to the precarious moral boundaries that are distorted over and over in the heat of battle. And as host Dan Taberski explores throughout a six-part series, that constant warping morality often leaves lasting destructive effects on the psyches of soldiers sent into war. At the center of "The Line" is the case of one such soldier, Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who, in 2018, was accused of committing war crimes during the battle of Mosul in Iraq. The most prominent of these accusations involves the killing of a teenage ISIS fighter who was captured as a prisoner of war. Gallagher was the subject of a highly publicized trial, sparked when a group of fellow SEALs broke ranks over concerns of Gallagher's erratic conduct in the field. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges except one - posing for a photo of himself with the body.

Much of "The Line" takes the form of a courtroom drama. It's a reliable framework to tell the story, the narrative parsing through the accusations levied against Gallagher, as well as the details of the defense. Through trial recordings and extensive interviews, including with Gallagher himself, Taberski takes on the role of outside investigator, piecing together what actually happened in Mosul and working through the question of Gallagher's guilt or innocence. But "The Line" is also interested in the bigger picture, in particular the tensions between what soldiers are made to understand about their role and what they're ultimately made to do. The concept of moral injury plays a heavy role into Taberski's examination. How do repeated forays into murky gray areas impact a soldier's sense of themselves as moral actors?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE LINE")

DAN TABERSKI: There's a thing that military ethicists talk about called the unlimited liability contract, that when you sign up to be a SEAL or any military service member, you're accepting that, yes, you could get hurt or lose your life because of what you're asked to do in this job. In exchange for that, the government keeps that physical risk as low as they possibly can while still accomplishing the mission.

But what about the moral risk? What about the harm that can come from being put in combat situations where all the right answers begin to fade away, leaving you with just a bunch of wrong ones to choose from, choices that you'll have to live with when the war is over?

QUAH: These aren't necessarily new ideas being explored here, but what's novel about "The Line" is how it takes an extra step to trace how those distortions of moral boundaries ripple into the domain of American culture itself. Gallagher's trial became a cause celebre for the right wing. This was by design. A key tactic in Gallagher's defense strategy involved taking control of public perception of the case by making it a right-wing cause. The third episode illustrates how the team worked to propel the trial right into the culture wars, driven in part by tapping into Gallagher's wife Andrea's strengths as a marketing professional. Between attacking the integrity of Gallagher's accusers and questioning the nature of what constitutes a war crime, they were able to drum up national interest to raise money and strengthen a public narrative in support of his innocence. The move makes strategic sense. It also happens to be highly lucrative, the kind of thing that creates a whole new kind of celebrity these days.

"The Line" is a stunning lesson, shepherded by one of the very best producers working in the medium today. Taberski came into prominence in the audio world with "Missing Richard Simmons," his breakout 2017 series that, interestingly enough, was thought to have skirted a few moral lines itself. His most recent effort, "Running From Cops" won a Peabody Award for its work unpacking the legacy of cops, the proto-reality television series. Taberski's considerable skill as a writer and narrator is on full display here, guiding listeners through a story thick with harrowing detail and moral complexity while maintaining a core decency. He's funny, too, armed with a particular inclination for the absurd, as he shows here, describing a recent shift that sees Navy SEALs coming to embrace their public brand a little more.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE LINE")

TABERSKI: The TV becomes lousy (ph) with Navy SEALs.

UNIDENTIFIED NAVY SEAL: Because this can inflict a serious amount of pain against someone.

TABERSKI: This SEAL, for example, is showing how a pen can be used as a deadly weapon to the nice lady on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: You have to do this with intention, though, right?

UNIDENTIFIED NAVY SEAL: Yes. You want to go for the eye, OK? The eye is a great place, the ribs, the kidney.

QUAH: All of this makes for a tremendous documentary. And listeners should know two more things going to the experience. The first is that this investigative podcast series has the somewhat uncommon distinction of actually solving its mystery, at least in part. Its concluding episode broke some news when it came out earlier this month, and you might have seen a few headlines to that effect. The second is that the story is not over. "The Line" is part of a larger media effort by Jigsaw Productions, one that involves a television documentary series that will hit Apple TV+ exclusively later this year. It remains to be seen where that television project takes the Eddie Gallagher story next, but for now, I can't recommend "The Line" highly enough.

DAVIES: Nick Quah is a podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He also writes the Hot Pod newsletter. On tomorrow's show, New York Times reporter Nick Corasaniti talks about new voting laws proposed in Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict voting rights, limit ballot initiatives which could undermine Republican goals, and stiffen penalties for poll workers and election officials who make even minor mistakes. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.