Spilling Ink and Spilling Blood

W.J. Astore (and Danny Sjursen)

Recently, I had a long conversation with Major (retired) Danny Sjursen on our responses to the Iraq and Afghan Wars. The entire conversation is at TomDispatch.com; what follows is an excerpt.

Bill (that’s me!): In the summer of 2007, I was increasingly disgusted by the way the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was hiding behind the bemedaled chest of Iraq commander General David Petraeus. Our civilian commander-in-chief, George W., was avoiding responsibility for the disastrous Iraq War by sending Petraeus, then known as the “surge” general, before Congress to testify that some sort of victory was still possible, even as he hedged his talk of progress with words like “fragile” and “reversible.”

So I got off my butt and wrote an article that argued we needed to end the Iraq War and our folly of “spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon.” I submitted it to newspapers like the New York Times with no success. Fortunately, a friend told me about TomDispatch, where Tom Engelhardt had been publishing critical articles by retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. Luckily for me, Tom liked my piece and published it as “Saving the Military from Itself” in October of that same year.

That article put me on the path of dissent from America’s forever wars, even if I wasn’t so much antiwar as anti-dumb-war then. As I asked at the time, how do you win someone else’s civil war? Being a Star Trek fan, I referred to the Kobayashi Maru, a “no-win” scenario introduced in the second Star Trek movie. I saw our troops, young lieutenants like yourself in Iraq, being stuck in a no-win situation and I was already convinced that, no matter how much Petraeus talked about “metrics” and “progress,” it wasn’t going to happen, that “winning” really meant leaving, and we haven’t won yet since, god help us, we’re still there.

Of course, the so-called surge in Iraq back then did what it was actually meant to do. It provided an illusion of progress and stability even while proving just as fragile and reversible as the weaselly Petraeus said it would be. Worse yet, the myth of that Iraqi surge would lead disastrously to the Afghan version of the same under Barack Obama and — yet again — Petraeus who would prove to be a general for all presidents.

Lucky you! You were on the ground in both surges, weren’t you?

Danny: I sure was! Believe it or not, a colonel once told me I was lucky to have done “line duty” in both of them — platoon and company command, Iraq and Afghanistan, Baghdad and Kandahar. To be honest, Bill, I knew something was fishy even before you retired or I graduated from West Point and headed for those wars.

In fact, it’s funny that you should mention Bacevich. I was first introduced to his work in the winter of 2004 as a West Point senior by then-Lieutenant Colonel Ty Seidule. Back then, for a guy like me, Bacevich had what could only be called bracing antiwar views (a wink-nod to your Bracing Views blog, Bill) for a classroom of burgeoning neocons just about certain to head for Iraq. Frankly, most of us couldn’t wait to go.

And we wouldn’t have that long to wait either. The first of our classmates to die, Emily Perez, was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb in September 2006 within 18 months of graduation (and five more were to die in the years to come). I took a scout platoon to southeast Baghdad a month later and we didn’t leave — most of us, that is — for 15 months.

My partly Bacevich-bred sneaking suspicions about America’s no-longer distant wars were, of course, all confirmed. It turned out that policing an ethno-religious-sectarian conflict, mostly of our own country’s making, while dodging counter-counterinsurgent attacks aimed at expelling us occupiers from that country was as tough as stateside invasion opponents had predicted.

On lonely outpost mornings, I had a nasty daily habit of reading the names of our announced dead. Midway through my tour, one of those countless attacks killed 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich. When I saw that name, I realized instantly that he must be the son of the man whose book I had read two years earlier, the man who is now our colleague. The moment remains painfully crystal clear in my memory.

By the way, Bill, your Iraq War take was dead on. During my own tour there, I came to the same realization. Embarrassingly enough, though, it took me seven years to say the same things publicly in my first book, fittingly subtitled “The Myth of the Surge.” By then, of course, ISIS — the Frankenstein’s monster of America’s misadventure — was already streaming across Syria’s synthetic borders and conquering swaths of northern and western Iraq, which made an anti-Iraq War screed seem quaint indeed, at least in establishment circles.

But Bill, do go on.

Bill: It was also back in 2007 when something John McCain said on PBS really ticked me off. In essence, he warned that if the U.S. military lost in Iraq, it wouldn’t be the generals’ fault. No, it would be ours, those of us who had questioned the war and its conduct and so had broken faith with that very military. In response, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch with the sarcastic title, “If We Lose Iraq, You’re to Blame,” because I already found such “stab-in-the-back” lies pernicious beyond words. As Andy Bacevich noted recently when it came to such lies about an earlier American military disaster: we didn’t lose the Vietnam War in 1975 when Saigon fell, we lost it in 1965 when President Johnson committed American troops to winning a civil war that South Vietnam had already lost.

Something similar is true for the Iraq and Afghan wars today. We won’t lose those conflicts when we finally pull all U.S. troops out and the situation goes south (as it most likely will). No, we lost the Afghan War in 2002 when we decided to turn a strike against the Taliban and al-Qaeda into an occupation of that country; and we lost the Iraq War the moment we invaded in 2003 and found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush and his top officials had sworn were there. Those were wars of choice, not of necessity, and we could only “win” them by finally choosing to end them. We lose them — and maybe our democracy as well — by choosing to keep on waging them in the false cause of “stability” or “counterterrorism,” or you-name-it.

Early in 2009, I had an epiphany of sorts while walking around a cemetery. With those constant deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries globally, the U.S. military, I thought, was becoming a foreign legion, almost like the quintessential French version of the same, increasingly separated from the people, and increasingly recruited from “foreign” elements, including recent immigrants to this country looking for a fast-track to citizenship.

Danny: Bill, one of my own soldiers fit the mold you just mentioned. Private First Class Gustavo Rios-Ordonez, a married father of two and a Colombian national. Partly seeking citizenship through service, he was the last trooper to join my command just before we shipped out and the first killed when, on June 20, 2011, he stepped on an improvised explosive device within sight of the Afghan outpost I then commanded. Typing this now, I stare at a framed dusty unit guidon, the pennant that once flew over that isolated sandbagged base of ours and was gifted to me by my soldiers.

Sorry, Bill, last interruption… scout’s honor!

Surges to Nowhere

Bill: So I wrote an article that asked if our military was morphing into an imperial police force. As I put it then: “Foreign as in being constantly deployed overseas on imperial errands; foreign as in being ever more reliant on private military contractors; foreign as in being increasingly segregated from the elites that profit most from its actions, yet serve the least in its ranks.” And I added, “Now would be a good time to ask exactly why, and for whom, our troops are currently fighting and dying in the urban jungles of Iraq and the hostile hills of Afghanistan.”

A few people torched me for writing that. They thought I was saying that the troops themselves were somehow foreign, that I was attacking the rank-and-file, but my intent was to attack those who were misusing the military for their own purposes and agendas and all the other Americans who were acquiescing in the misuse of our troops. It’s a strange dynamic in this country, the way we’re cajoled into supporting our troops without ourselves having to serve or even pay attention to what they’re doing.

Indeed, under George W. Bush, we were even discouraged from commemorating the honored dead, denied seeing footage of returning flag-draped caskets. We were to celebrate our troops, while they (especially the dead and wounded) were kept out of sight — literally behind curtains, by Bush administration order — and so mostly out of mind.

I was against the Afghan surge, Danny, because I knew it would be both futile and unsustainable. In arguing that case, I reached back to the writings of two outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. As President Obama deliberated on whether to surge or not, I suggested that he should confer with broadminded critics outside the government, tough-minded freethinkers cut from the cloth of Mailer and McCarthy.

Mailer, for example, had argued that the Vietnamese were “faceless” to Americans (just as the Iraqis and Afghans have been all these years), that we knew little about them as a people and cared even less. He saw American intervention in “heart of darkness” terms. McCarthy was even blunter, condemning as “wicked” the government’s technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare with its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives.” Predictably, Obama listened to conventional wisdom and surged again, first under General Stanley McChrystal and then, of course, under Petraeus.

Danny: Well, Bill, paltry as it may now sound, I truly thank you for your post-service service to sensibility and decency — even if those efforts didn’t quite spare me the displeasure of a second stint in a second theater with Petraeus as my supreme commander for a second time.

By the way, I ran into King David (as he came to be known) last year in a long line for the urinals at Newark airport. Like you, I’ve been tearing the guy’s philosophy and policies up for years. Still, I decided decorum mattered, so I introduced myself and mentioned that we’d met once at a Baghdad base in 2007. But before I could even kid him about how his staff had insisted that we stock ample kiwi slices because he loved to devour them, Petraeus suddenly walked off without even making it to the stall! I found it confusing behavior until I glimpsed myself in the mirror and remembered that I was wearing an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” t-shirt.

Okay, here’s a more instructive anecdote: Have I ever mentioned to you that my Afghan outpost, “Pashmul South” as it was then known, featured prominently in the late journalist Michael Hasting’s classic book, The Operators (which inspired the Netflix original movie War Machine)? At one point, Hastings describes how Petraeus’s predecessor in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, visited an isolated base full of war-weary and war-exasperated infantrymen. In one of the resident platoons, all but seven of its 25 original members had “been killed, wounded, or lost their minds.” And yes, that was the “palace” I took over a couple of years later, an outpost the Taliban was then attacking almost daily.

By the time I took up the cause of “Enduring Freedom” (as the Afghan operation had been dubbed by the Pentagon), I had already resigned myself to being one of those foreign legionnaires you’ve talked about, if not an outright mercenary. During the Afghan surge, I fought for pay, healthcare, a future West Point faculty slot, and lack of a better alternative (or alternate identity). My principles then were simple enough: patrol as little as possible, kill as few locals as you can, and make sure that one day you’ll walk (as many of my scouts literally did) out of that valley called Arghandab.

I was in a dark headspace then. I didn’t believe a damn thing my own side said, held out not an ounce of hope for victory, and couldn’t even be bothered to hate my “enemy.” On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, staff officers at brigade headquarters sent a Reuters reporter deep into the boonies to profile the only commander around from the New York City area and I told him just what I thought, or close enough in any case. Suffice it to say that my colonels were less than pleased when Captain Sjursen was quoted as saying that “the war was anything but personal” and that he never “thought about 9/11 at all” or when he described the Taliban this way: “It’s farm-boys picking up guns. How do you hate that?”

Rereading that article now, I feel a certain sadness for that long-gone self of mine, so lost in fatalism, hopelessness, and near-nihilism. Then I catch myself and think: imagine how the Afghans felt, especially since they didn’t have a distant home to scurry off to sooner or later.

Anyway, I never forgot that it was Obama — from whom I’d sought Iraq War salvation — who ordered my troops on that even more absurd Afghan surge to nowhere (and I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him either). Still, if there was a silver lining in all that senselessness, perhaps it was that such a bipartisan betrayal widened both the breadth and depth of my future dissent.

Please read the rest of our conversation here, and our conclusion that, when it comes to resisting America’s disastrous wars, our motto has to be: No retreat, no surrender.