One Grizzled Veteran’s Dream

W.J. Astore

Today I saw this bulletin from FP: Foreign Policy: 

OUTSIDE THE WIRE: Several years after pulling back, American troops will head outside the wire to battle the Taliban and turn up the air war, FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce report.

America’s wars never end.  So much for Armistice Day of 99 years ago.  In place of Woodrow Wilson’s eternal peace, we now have eternal war.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We have a choice, as this article, that I wrote for Veterans Day in 2009, suggests.

Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.

Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.

At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)

Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.

It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.

As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.

Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.

Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago?

2009-11-11-VDay2.jpg

Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?

Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.

Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.

On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?

Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?

Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?

I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.

Will America’s Wars Ever End?

W.J. Astore

In late 2009, I wrote the following article for Huff Post under the title, “One Grizzled Veteran’s Dream.”  This Memorial Day Weekend, I’d like to remember the dream a veteran shared with me and lots of other high school juniors back in 1980.  Sadly, that dream is even more distant today than it was in 1980.  

Thirty years ago, I attended Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State introduces high school students to civics and government in a climate that bears a passing resemblance to military basic training. Arranged in “companies,” we students did our share of hurrying up, lining up, and waiting (sound preparation, in fact, for my career in the military). I recall that one morning a “company” of students got to eat first because they launched into a lusty rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. I wasn’t angry at them: I was angry at myself for not thinking of the ruse first.

Today, most of my Boys State experience is a blur, but one event looms large: the remarks made by a grizzled veteran to us assembled boys. Standing humbly before us, he confessed that he hoped organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars would soon wither away. And he said that he hoped none of us would ever become a member of his post.

At first, we didn’t get it. Didn’t he like us? Weren’t we tough enough? (Indeed, I recall that one of our adolescent complaints was that the name “Boys State” didn’t seem manly enough.)

Then it dawned on us what the withering away of organizations like the American Legion and the VFW would mean. That in our future young Americans would no longer be fighting and dying in foreign wars. That our world would be both saner and safer, and only members of an “old guard” like this unnamed veteran would be able to swap true war stories. Our role would simply be to listen with unmeasured awe and undisguised thanks, grateful that our own sons and daughters no longer had to risk life or limb to enemy bullets and bombs.

It pains me that we as a country have allowed this veteran’s dream to die. We as a country continue to enlarge our military, expand our foreign commitments, and fight seemingly endless wars, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in other far-off realms of less-than-vital interest to us.

As a result of these wars, we continue to churn out so many new veterans, including so many wounded veterans, not forgetting those who never made it back.

flag
Veterans’ Graves (photo by the author)

Collectively, we Americans tend to suppress whatever doubts we have about the wisdom of our wars with unequivocal statements of support for our troops. And on days like Veteran’s Day, we honor those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.

Yet, wouldn’t the best support for our troops be the achievement of the dream of that grizzled vet who cut through a young man’s fog thirty years ago?

Shouldn’t we be working to achieve a new age in which the rosters of our local VFWs and Legion posts are no longer renewed with the broken bodies and shattered minds of American combat veterans?

Sadly, as we raise more troops and fight more wars, we seem committed to the opposite. Our military just enjoyed its best recruiting class in years. This “success” is not entirely surprising. It’s no longer that difficult to fill our military’s expanding ranks because many of our young men and women simply have little choice but to enlist, whether for economic opportunity, money for college, or benefits like free health care.

Many of course enlist for patriotic reasons as well. Yet the ease of expanding our military ranks during a shooting war is also a painful reminder of the impoverishment of opportunities for young, able-bodied Americans – the bitter fruit of manufacturing jobs sent overseas, of farming jobs eliminated by our own version of corporate collectivization, of a real national unemployment rate that is approaching twenty percent.

On this Veteran’s Day, what if we began to measure our national success and power, not by our military arsenal or by the number of new recruits in the ranks, but rather by the gradual shrinking of our military ranks, the decline of our spending on defense, perhaps even by the growing quiet of our legion posts and VFW halls?

Wouldn’t that be a truer measure of national success: fewer American combat veterans?

Wouldn’t that give us something to celebrate this Veteran’s Day?

I know one old grizzled veteran who would quietly nod his agreement.

Militarism USA

A nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth Bomber flies over a gigantic flag at the 2012 Baseball All-Star Game
A nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth Bomber flies over a gigantic flag at the 2012 Baseball All-Star Game

W.J. Astore

As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009.  I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA.  Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen.  Not anymore.  The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart.  And that’s not good for democracy.

I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO.  Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind.  And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.

Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago.  Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.

What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism
By William Astore

I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.

We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.

It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.

In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?

Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?

And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?

A Seven-Step Recovery Program

As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:

1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.

2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.

Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”

There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.

3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?

If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.

The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?

4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.

5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.

6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.

7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.

Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.

If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?

Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?

Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.

Copyright 2009 William J. Astore

Too Many Troops Have Died in the Name of Big Boy Pants

Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants
Too many troops have died in the name of big boy pants

W.J. Astore

Jeremy Scahill is a reporter for whom the word “intrepid” may have been invented. He’s been remarkably bold in covering the creation of private mercenary forces in the United States (as documented in his bestseller, Blackwater) as well as America’s “turn to the dark side” after 9/11/2001, which led to “wars of choice” in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with interventions in Somalia, Yemen, and across the world in the name of combating terrorism. Indeed, the subtitle of Scahill’s new book is “The World Is A Battlefield.” And since there’s always a terrorist organization at large somewhere in the world, we are ensured of a forever war, a grim prospect on this Veterans Day.

I’ve written an extended review of Scahill’s Dirty Wars at Michigan War Studies Review, edited by the incomparable Jim Holoka.  An aspect of this review I’d like to focus on is the use of macho language by Bush Administration operatives soon after 9/11.  A strength of Scahill’s account is his ear for the tough talk of civilians within the administration, most of whom had no military experience.

In the days and weeks following 9/11, L. Paul Bremer, later to become the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, wrote of the Clinton’s Administration’s “limp-wristed” approach to terrorism.  Cofer Black, Bush’s head of counter-terrorism, talked of “taking the gloves off” as well as of “unleashing the junkyard dog” of CIA and special operations forces against terrorist networks.  Perhaps the most telling attempt at tough-talk came from the lips of Jose Rodriguez, Director of Operations at the CIA, who said it was time for “everybody in the government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities what we [the CIA] needed [to take action].” [Emphasis added.]

The worst fear of these men seems to have been of appearing weak. They didn’t want to be caught wearing little boy pants; they didn’t want to fight with gloves on; and they certainly didn’t want to appear to be limp-wristed. No — these were REAL men. They wanted to put on big boy pants; they were ready for bare-knuckle brawls; no limp-wristed wimps need apply.

Here Scahill quotes Malcolm Nance, a career counterterrorist expert for the U.S. Navy, as describing Cofer Black and his fellow tough-guys as “civilian ideologues” who embraced “Tom Clancy Combat Concepts” that consisted of “going hard, … popping people on the streets, … dagger and intrigue all the time.”  Tom Clancy might make for decent Hollywood action movies, but it’s never a good idea to confuse fantasy with reality.

There’s much more to Scahill’s book (and the documentary that accompanies it, also named “Dirty Wars”) than this, and I urge you to read it.  Its major theme is the abuse of power by the U.S. government and the erosion of Constitutional safeguards and freedoms, all justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”  But one of its minor themes is the macho posturing of men with little or no experience in the military who were all too willing to order others to fight in their name.

Yes, they all put on the “big boy pants” — figuratively speaking. They sat in offices and ordered young troops into battle.  And I’m sure they signed those orders with bare knuckles and firm wrists.  In so doing they risked nothing and gained, at least in their own minds, a reputation for toughness.

Far too often in the history of war have old men believed that, by sending others off to fight and die, they were putting on the big boy pants. The costs of such macho posturing have been, and continue to be, far too high.

Ann Jones on the Horrendous Costs of War to Our Veterans

wallatnight1
Veterans Day has become a day of sales and promotions instead of a time of reflection about the costs of war and the sacrifices of our troops.  The great virtue of Ann Jones’s new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story is that it truly makes us confront the painful realities of war, which is (or should be) a large part of what Veterans Day is all about.

You don’t thank a veteran because he or she dons a uniform and salutes smartly.  You thank a veteran because he or she volunteered (or was drafted in past days) for a life of sacrifice.  In the military, one’s freedoms are abridged in the name of defending freedom, a paradox that is justifiable when the cause is just.  But even when the cause is just, the sacrifices our troops make and the wounds they bear are often as horrendous to them as they are hidden from the rest of us.

That’s the virtue of Ann Jones’s new book.  She makes us reckon with the true costs of America’s “long war” on terror, a reckoning that’s much needed in Veterans Day ceremonies that often involve far too much vapid consumerism and not enough honest reflection. W.J. Astore

They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into: The Cost of War American-Style 
By Ann Jones

(Used by permission of TomDispatch.com)

The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody.  They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.

It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage.  They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski.  They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.

They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.

I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan.  It must have been in 2002.  In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country — most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co. — and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.

I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf.  The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contested buzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.

I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses.  At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount.  They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away, and dump them in the dirt.

A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles, and made a great show of laughing off the incident — of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure.  A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”

The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar.  In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts.  The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.

I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoys were racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles.  Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.

Enter the Warriors

I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children.  In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals — few in number then — to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes.  They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.

After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital.  Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps — no helmets or armor — and walked into shops like casual tourists.  They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.

Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run over by speeding soldiers.  A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?”  I had, at the time, no answer for her.

In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans.  As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”

The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum.  Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.

To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars — Iraq, for example, or Vietnam — and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics.  To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.

Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years.  Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W).  What they seldom acted like was real people.  For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian.  They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.

In time, though, their canned — and fearful — aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been.  So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers.  At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency.  I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on.  In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.

By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors — no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”

For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors.  It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle — the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded.  It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.

I learned a lesson from that.  America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones.  To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

And that may be the point: that there wasn’t one, not to this war of choice and revenge, or the one in Iraq either.  There were only kids in uniform, most of whom by that time knew that they hadn’t known what they were getting into, and now were struggling to keep their illusions and themselves alive.  They walked the streets of the base, two by two, battle buddies heading for the DFAC (mess hall), the laundry, the latrine, the gym. They hung out on the Internet and the international phones, in the war and out of it at the same time, until orders came down from somewhere: Washington, Kabul, Bagram, or the map-lined room behind the closed door of the base commander’s office.  As a result, every day while I was on that base, patrols were ordered to drive or walk out into the surrounding mountains where Taliban flags flew. Very often they returned with men missing.

What had happened to those boys who had been there at breakfast in the DFAC? Dead or torn up by a sniper or a roadside bomb, they had been whisked off by helicopters and then… what?

They lodged in my memory.  Unable to forget them, almost a year later, when I was officially not a nosy journalist but a research fellow at a leading university, I again applied for permission to embed in the military.  This time, I asked to follow casualties from that high desert “battle space” to the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, onto a C-17 with the medical teams that accompanied the wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany — the biggest American hospital outside the United States — then back onto a C-17 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and in some cases, all the way home.

Over the years, more and more of America’s kids made that medevac journey back to the States. Costsofwar.com has tallied 106,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan or evacuated from those war zones because of accident or disease.  Because so many so-called “invisible wounds” are not diagnosed until after soldiers return home, the true number of wounded must be much higher. Witness the fact that, as of June 2012, 247,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as of May 31, 2012, more than 745,000 veterans of those wars had filed disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA).  Taxpayers have already spent $135 billion on medical and disability payments for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the long-term medical and disability costs are expected to peak at about midcentury, at an estimated $754 billion.

Then there were the “fallen,” the dead, shipped to Dover Air Base in metal “transfer cases” aboard standard cargo planes. They were transferred to the official military mortuary in ceremonies from which the media, and thus the public, were until 2009 excluded — at least 6,656 of them from Iraq and Afghanistan by February of this year. At least 3,000 private contractors have also been killed in both wars. Add to this list the toll of post-deployment suicides, and soldiers or veterans hooked on addictive opioids pushed by Big Pharma and prescribed by military doctors or VA psychiatrists either to keep them on the job or, after they break down, to “cure” them of their war experiences.

The first veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned to the United States 10 years ago in 2003, yet I’ve never spoken to a damaged soldier or a soldier’s family members who thought the care he or she received from the Veterans Administration was anything like appropriate or enough.  By the VA’s own admission, the time it takes to reach a decision on a veteran’s benefits, or simply to offer an appointment, is so long that some vets die while waiting.

So it is that, since their return, untold numbers of soldiers have been looked after by their parents.  I visited a home on the Great Plains where a veteran has lain in his childhood bed, in his mother’s care, for most of the last decade, and another home in New England where a veteran spent the last evening before he took his own life sitting on his father’s lap.

As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.

Like the soldiers, the country has changed.  Muted now is the braggadocio of the bring-‘em-on decider who started the preemptive process that ate the children of the poor and patriotic.  Now, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, Washington scrambles to make the exit look less like a defeat — or worse, pointless waste.  Most Americans no longer ask what the wars were for.

“Follow the money,” a furious Army officer, near the end of his career, instructed me. I had spent my time with poor kids in search of an honorable future who do the grunt work of America’s military.  They are part of the nation’s lowliest 1%. But as that angry career officer told me, “They only follow orders.” It’s the other 1% at the top who are served by war, the great American engine that powers the transfer of wealth from the public treasury upward and into their pockets. Following that money trail reveals the real point of the chosen conflicts. As that disillusioned officer put it to me, the wars have made those profiteers “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.” It’s the soldiers and their families who lost out.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

Copyright Ann Jones 2013.