by Danny Sjursen
Recently, on a beautiful Kansas Saturday, I fell asleep early, exhausted by the excitement and ultimate disappointment of the Army football team’s double overtime loss to highly favored Michigan. Having turned against America’s forever wars and the U.S. military as an institution while I was still in it, West Point football, I’m almost ashamed to admit, is my last guilty martial pleasure. Still, having graduated from the Academy, taught history there, and spent 18 long years in the Army, I find something faintly hopeful about a team of undersized, overmatched, non-National Football League prospects facing off against one of the biggest schools in college football.
I awoke, though, early the next morning to the distressing — if hardly surprising — news that President Trump had spiked months of seemingly promising peace talks with the Taliban, blocking any near-term hope for an end to America’s longest, most hopeless war of all. My by-now-uncomfortably-familiar response was to go even deeper into a funk, based on a vague, if overwhelming, sense that the world only manages to get worse on a near-daily basis. For this longtime skeptic of U.S. foreign policy, once also a secret dreamer and idealist, that reality drives me toward political nihilism, a feeling that nothing any of us can do will halt the spread of an increasingly self-destructive empire and the collapse of democracy at home.
Looking back, I can trace my long journey from burgeoning neoconservative believer to Iraq War opponent to war-on-terror dissenter to disenfranchised veteran nonbeliever. Thinking about this in the wake of Army’s loss and those cancelled Afghan peace talks, during a typically morose conversation with Tom, of TomDispatch, I realized that I could tell a story of escalating military heresy and disappointment simply from the three years of articles I’d written for his website. It mattered little that, at the time, I imagined them as anything but the stuff of autobiography.
If all this sounds gloomy, writing itself has been cathartic for me and may have saved me on this strange journey of mine. So, join me on a little autobiographical fast march through a world increasingly filled with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as seen through the eyes of one apostate military veteran. Maybe some of you will even recognize aspects of your own life journeys in what follows.
“Hope and Change” in Iraq
In October 2006, when Second Lieutenant Sjursen arrived in Iraq, Baghdad was still, at least figuratively, aflame. It took only a few months of repetitious, useless “presence patrols,” a dozen IED strikes on my scout platoon, the deaths of three of my troopers and the maiming of others, as well as ubiquitous civilian deaths in marketplace bombings, to free me from a sense that the war in Iraq served any purpose whatsoever. Hearing again and again, even from long oppressed Shia Iraqis, that life under Sunni autocrat Saddam Hussein had been better, it became increasingly apparent that the U.S. invasion, launched by the Republican administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on thoroughly bogus grounds in the spring of 2003, had shattered their nation and perhaps destabilized a region as well.
Just 23 years old (and, by my own estimation, immature at that), I — and a surprising number of my junior officer peers — started cautiously acting out. I grew my hair longer than regulations allowed and posted World War I-era antiwar poems by British veterans like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owenon my locker. I eventually even began “phoning in” my patrols, while attempting to avoid dicey, ambush-prone neighborhoods whenever possible.
And yet, despite a growing sense of darkness, I’d yet to lose all hope. At home, the Democrats (many of whom had once voted for the Iraq War) won back Congress in November 2006, largely thanks to a sudden burst of antiwar, anti-Bush rhetoric. In 2007, I began using my limited Internet time to ingest transcripts of every speech by or article about an upstart young African-American Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama. Unlike anointed frontrunner Hillary Clinton, he seemed inspirational, an outsider, and — as an Illinois state senator — an early opponent of the very invasion that had landed me in my macabre predicament. I quickly decided he was my man, buying into his “hope and change” rhetoric, while dreaming of the day he’d end my war, saving countless lives, including possibly my own.
Sadly, if predictably, despite the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and monthly U.S. military fatalities that regularly hit triple digits, nothing could stop the Bush administration from continuing to escalate the war. I remember the moment in April 2007 when I heard that, thanks to President Bush’s announced troop “surge” in Iraq, my squadron was designated to stay three months past our scheduled year-long deployment. It felt like a gut punch. Steve, my fellow lieutenant, and I chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes in silence, while leaning against the brick wall of our Baghdad barracks. Then we faced the music and broke the news to our distraught soldiers.
In that bloodiest year of the war, my squadron would lose another half-dozen men in combat, while nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemen and women would die. Yet that famed, widely hailed surge would, of course, ultimately fail. Not that most policymakers thought so at the time. The Bush-anointed, media-savvy new commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, sold a temporary drop in violence to a fawning Congress, including most of those Democrats, as a profound success. It scarcely mattered that the announced purpose of the surge — to create space and time for a political reconciliation between Iraqi sects and ethnicities — failed from the start. My long-shot dream that an “antiwar” Congress would cut off funds for the conflict remained just that.
Still, landing at my home base in Colorado that New Year’s Eve, I remained almost unnaturally hopeful about Barack Obama as a potential savior. By April 2008, promoted to captain and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for advanced schooling, I found myself secretly canvassing for him across the Ohio River in Indiana, which had just gained swing-state status. If only he could best Republican candidate John McCain, I thought, he might rapidly end what he had once called “the dumb war.” Given my single-minded focus on that possibility, I managed to ignore the way candidate Obama simultaneously called for an escalation of what he termed “the good war” in Afghanistan. Never mind, Obama won in November 2008. I spent Election Day drinking blue martinis and cheering him on with fellow dissenting officers. That night, holding my newly born infant son, I cried tears of joy as the election returns poured in.
Serving Empire Abroad, Feeling Empire Close to Home
The next few years would be filled with disappointment, disenchantment, and disbelief as I followed America’s wars and the state of the world from a desktop computer in my new, highly immersive job with the 4th Cavalry on the squadron operations staff in Fort Riley, Kansas. I watched President Obama shed his dove credentials, unleash across the Greater Middle East exponentially more drone assassination attacks than the Bush administration, fail to close Guantanamo, and triple troop numbers — besting even Bush — in his own “surge” in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Pentagon would utilize a newly established U.S. military command, AFRICOM, to quietly expand deployments across another continent.
I was now in command of a company (we in the cavalry called it a “troop”) of some 100 scouts. In February 2011, Obama’s ongoing surge 2.0 diverted my unit from a potentially cushy “turn-out-the-lights” Iraq deployment to a fierce fight on the Taliban’s home turf in Kandahar, Afghanistan. That awful mission, as I told a Reuters reporter on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — to the frustration of my colonel — seemed to me futilely unrelated to the events of September 2001. (I was chosen for the interview as a New York native.)
In that ultimately futile deployment, my troop of scouts lost three more lives and several more limbs. That May, Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan and my mother promptly asked if I’d now get to come home early. No such luck.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration further shattered the Greater Middle East and beyond through a string of military interventions. During my year-long deployment in Afghanistan, Washington helped turn Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya into a failed state of battling warlords and Islamists through an ill-fated regime-change operation; inched its way toward an intervention in the Syrian civil war that would, in the end, counterproductively back jihadis; and stood aside as the Saudis invaded Bahrain to crush Arab Spring protests in a little country that just happened to be home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
I’d entered Afghanistan already opposed to that war and with few illusions that my own unit — or the U.S. military more generally — could alter the outcome there, let alone “win.” As that tour of duty wound down, I considered leaving the military once and for all. Still, I hedged. From remote southern Afghanistan, I had just enough fax-machine access to apply for a position teaching history at West Point, an assignment that could first get me two blissful years earning a master’s degree at a civilian university free of charge with full military pay and benefits. Surprisingly, I was accepted into that selective program and decided to stay in the Army indefinitely.
Grad school in the hippie enclave and university town of Lawrence, Kansas, in 2012 was all I’d hoped for, and more. Shedding my uniform, I felt strangely at home and thrived. I might have remained a student forever. Still, as I studied, I watched my former world continue to worsen.
During my two years at the University of Kansas, the Obama administration changed course, backing an Egyptian military coup against that country’s first democratically elected president; National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden blew the whistle on a massive illegal domestic surveillance program that was monitoring nearly all Americans; Army leaker Chelsea Manning, brought to trial by Obama’s Justice Department, was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison under the archaic World War I Espionage Act; and the newly branded Islamic State (formed in U.S. prisons in Iraq) exploded across Iraq and Syria. Soon, the president, having pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, found himself launching a new air war in Syria as well as relaunching an old one in Iraq, and then sending troops into both countries.
All the while, the war in Afghanistan raged on without end or a hint of progress. Not yet emotionally prepared to speak, I suddenly wrote a short, angry, letter to hawkish Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, which would, over the next two years, turn into an anti-Iraq war memoir focused on the myth of the success of the surge. Predictably, hardly anyone noticed. Rather than feeling elated over having my book published, I only became more cynical about our ability — any of us — to alter the hapless path on which imperial America seemed so fully embarked.
Life goes on, however, and from 2014 to 2016, I had, I thought, the best job in the Army: teaching U.S. history to “plebes” (freshmen cadets) at West Point. Despite my own heartache, my by-then crippling PTSD, and the barely suppressed mental-health crisis that went with it, I held onto one hope: that, if I could enthusiastically impart a more accurate and critical history of the nation to my students, I just might influence a new generation of more independent-thinking officers. My former cadets are now all lieutenants and though some do attest to the influence of my class, most are serving the empire as middle managers across a vast global chain of American bases.
The news only grew more distressing during my brief foray at West Point. By then, the Pentagon was supporting an ongoing Saudi war in Yemen that included regular terror bombing and a starvation blockade of the country. It would kill tens of thousands of civilians, starve perhaps 100,000 children to death, and unleash a cholera epidemic of epic proportions. Meanwhile, the president reversed a promise to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by December 31, 2014, and that war went right on. In those same years, the U.S. military “footprint” across Africa expanded exponentially, as (in a pattern already seen in the Greater Middle East) did a proliferation of Islamist militias on that continent.
Then, empire — as it always does — came home, this time in the form of increasingly militarized and Pentagon-equipped policing in neighborhoods of color across the nation. Thanks to YouTube and social media, pervasive instances of police brutality and the killing of unarmed, mostly young black men streamed into public consciousness. It was all brought home to me when a black man, Eric Garner, was choked to death by a white New York City police officer on a troubled street corner in my home borough of Staten Island, for the alleged crime of selling loose cigarettes. As a student of civil rights history, an aspirant activist, and the lead instructor (oddly enough) in African-American History at West Point, I felt galvanized into action.
The result: I found myself teaching cadets by day, then changing into jeans and a hoodie and driving 90 minutes to Staten Island, protest sign in tow. There, I would attend Eric Garner rallies and shout at the police. Hours later, I would trek back to the military academy, rinse and repeat. It felt good to be out on the streets, but, of course, it changed nothing. America’s warrior cops still operate with near impunity, using U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics (sometimes with Israeli Defense Force training) in communities of color as if they were occupied enemy territory.
Off the Rails, Once and For All
Leaving West Point’s (relatively) progressive and intellectual history department in June 2016 for Fort Leavenworth’s stiflingly conventional Command and General Staff College in Kansas would prove deeply unsettling. Little did I know, though, that, as I began protesting America’s forever wars (my wars, so to speak) ever more volubly, my once-promising military career would soon be over. Army doctors determined that my emotional wounds qualified me for an early medical retirement. By February 2019, I found myself writing up a little antiwar storm and experiencing in-patient PTSD treatment in Arizona. I was, in other words, on my way out the door, an ignominious — if fitting — end to a career only months longer than America’s second Afghan War.
In those years, U.S. foreign policy should have gone into in-patient treatment, too. It had, in fact, spun out of control. In a through-the-looking-glass series of moves, our military continued to bomb seven countries, deployed troops to Syria, reentered Iraq, began expanding and modernizing its already vast nuclear arsenal, launched a new Cold War with Russia and China, and moved into the 18th year of its war in Afghanistan.
And did I mention that Donald Trump, corrupt real estate magnate, playboy, and reality TV star turned “populist” xenophobic hero, was elected president of the United States? He then ditched a promising Obama-era deal to deter Iran’s nuclear program, eschewed any American contribution to the global campaign against the existential threat of climate change (which he had previously called a “Chinese hoax”), and spiked the Cold War Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, leading atomic scientists to tick the “doomsday” clock a stroke closer to midnight.
He or his top officials also militarized the southern border, separated children from immigrant parents, and stuck kids in cages. He cheered on white supremacist rallies; encouraged those militarized cops to “not be too nice” to suspects and perhaps even to slam their heads into patrol car doors on their way to the station; threatened a “fire and fury” nuclear war against North Korea before falling “in love” with that country’s ruler; indicted, for the first time in American history, a publisher, Julian Assange, for posting leaked files; officially recognized the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, while expressing approval for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the Palestinian West Bank outright; and… and… but I lack the energy to go on.
Which brings me back to Army’s heartbreaking (if inconsequential) loss in that football game and Trump’s recent decision to cancel ongoing peace talks with the Taliban (maybe the only hope left of getting our troops out of Afghanistan). That, of course, was the one constant of this tale of mine: that never-ending American war in Afghanistan. By September 2019, matters had so deteriorated that I was left with but one pathetic hope: that Donald Trump might, somehow, some way, sometime, be the one to end that absurd, Orwellian forever war.
And then, of course, he called off those peace talks and — a last gut punch — justified his decision by citing a Taliban attack that killed yet another American soldier. In the process, he ensured that yet more troopers like me (some of them undoubtedly born after the 9/11 attacks took place) will needlessly die in a war without end. Now, an alleged Iranian-sponsored attackon the Saudi oil industry may well scuttle any hopes for a long-shot peace deal with Tehran. War there, of course, could kill many more U.S. troops.
As for me, I have a feeling that I’ll wake up tomorrow to some new bit of bad news and begin repeating my now-endless refrain: Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse…
Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVetand check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris Henriksen. Republished, with permission, from TomDispatch.