William Astore and Danny Sjursen, Pen Pals of War
TomDispatch is essentially a no-submissions site. The only exception I’ve made over the years has been for those in the U.S. military or retired from it who, miraculously enough, became critical of it and the forever wars that it so relentlessly pursued. I’ve always felt that they had something of importance to offer the rest of us. The first such out-of-the-blue email to arrive in the TD mailbox came from Bill Astore. Given this 76-year-old brain of mine that’s tossing out memories with abandon, it’s a small miracle (or testimony of a sort) that the message from the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel that appeared in September 2007 still sticks with me so vividly.
I was already publishing the work of Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, because I had been deeply impressed by his book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War and had gotten in touch with him. (I would later become his editor at Metropolitan Books.) That first Astore email pointed out something that, at the time, I had seen no one else say: that the patches, badges, and medals American generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower had once worn in small numbers and modestly indeed had become military glitz of the first order that more or less literally covered the chests of American commanders like Iraq surge general David Petraeus. Eerily enough, Astore added, their bemedaled chests had come to resemble those of Russian generals in the previous century when, ambushed in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was starting to go down in flames.
I thought it a fascinating observation and the next thing either of us knew, Astore was writing for TomDispatch. Thirteen years later, he’s written something like 75 pieces for this site and I’ve never stopped being struck by them.
Danny Sjursen’s first email didn’t arrive for another 10 years. He had been reading TomDispatch while a captain still deployed in Afghanistan. He was, by the time he wrote, back in the U.S., and a uniformed, not retired, critic of this country’s wars. “It’s good to know,” as I wrote in my introduction to that inaugural post of his in 2017, “that, even if not at the highest ranks of the U.S. military, there are officers who have been able to take in what they experienced up close and personal in Iraq and Afghanistan and make some new — not desperately old — sense of it.” He, too, has been writing for TomDispatch ever since.
Today, the two men take a unique look back at the paths they took to becoming critics of America’s wars and its war machine. Tom
Spilling Ink and Spilling Blood
Fighting and Writing Against America’s Forever Wars
If you have a moment, how about joining two retired officers, Bill Astore and me, Danny Sjursen, as we think about this country’s catastrophic forever wars that, regardless of their deadly costs and lack of progress, never seem quite to end?
Recently, in a podcast chat about our very different but somehow twin journeys through those wars, he and I got to thinking about what might have happened if our paths had crossed so much earlier. Both of us, after all, have been writing for TomDispatch for years. As Bill once said to me, thinking about his post-military writing career, “You know, Danny, in my small way I was trying — and failing — to stop the wars you were heading into.”
Now that’s an interesting, if disturbing, thought. But Bill, what would you have said to Lieutenant Danny (that was me once upon a time!) and how might he have responded then?
Who could know now, of course? Still, here’s our retrospective attempt to sort that out in joint correspondence in which we track about 15 years’ worth of this country’s unending wars.
The Frankenstein and Star Trek Years of American War
Bill: When you were graduating from West Point in 2005 and shining your lieutenant’s bars, Danny, I was putting my uniform away after 20 years in the Air Force and driving to Pennsylvania for a new career as a history professor. I thought I’d teach and maybe write a book or two. I never pictured myself as a dissenter, and I’d never spoken out publicly against the wars we were in. The one time I was interviewed about them, in 2005 when I was still the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, I remember saying that I preferred our troops use words rather than rifle butts to communicate with the Afghans and Iraqis. Of course, we had so few troops who spoke Arabic or Pashto or Dari that we leaned on our rifles instead, which meant lots of dead and alienated people in both countries.
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.
The Struggle Itself
Bill: Speaking of surges, Danny, even the word is a military misnomer. It’s dishonest. Real generals advance and retreat. They reinforce. They win (or lose). They occupy the battlefield. Lines move on maps. Foes are beaten and surrender. None of this happens with a “surge.” Our generals just added more troops to exert temporary control over an area in what was nothing more than a fallacious face-saving gesture. A mask. A conceit. All those surges did was sustain a losing cause and reinforce failure. Consider them a fundamental mistake of military strategy, like throwing good money after bad or doubling down on a losing hand.
Why didn’t they listen to me? Why didn’t they stop the Iraq and Afghan surges and end those wars? And now that, with other retired military types, we’re both in the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN) you organized, continuing to speak out against the twenty-first-century American way of making war, why do they still not listen to us? I fear that the answer’s simple enough: they have a trillion reasons not to. After all, roughly a trillion-plus dollars is spent each year on the Pentagon, on so-called homeland security, on nuclear weapons, on intelligence and surveillance, on buying weaponry and then more of the same after that. Why won’t they listen to us? We threaten their bottom line, their profits. And why should we get invites to CNN and MSNBC and other mainstream media sites when they already have Pentagon cheerleaders on their staffs and retired senior officers who spout the party line, as journalist David Barstow revealed in his Pulitzer-award-winning series? We aren’t really in EMN, Danny, we’re in the IMF, the impossible missions force.
I remember reading old newspapers from the 1930s that were quite blunt about how to end war: get the profit motive out of it. That was when the standing U.S. military was fairly small and Americans were skeptical of weapons makers, the “merchants of death” as they were so rightly called back then. Almost a century later, we’re the leading merchant of death, the country that arms the world. Domestically, we’re awash in weaponry, with a gun for every American and a mini-tank for every police force. I’ve attacked this creeping militarism, this degradation of our democracy, but with little success. So welcome to the IMF from the classic TV show Mission Impossible. Unless we smarten up and end these perpetual wars, this democracy will self-destruct in five seconds. The odds are long, but it’s a mission we just have to accept.
Danny: I couldn’t agree more, Bill. The militarism problem is cyclical and systemic with a backstory that’s sure to ping our shared historian’s radar. I hinted at this two months ago in remarks I made at legendary antiwar vet Smedley Butler’s graveside (the former major general I wrote about at TomDispatch in February). Highlighting his prophetic aspect, I noted that the two-time Medal of Honor-recipient had diagnosed core components of the military-industrial complex a quarter of a century before our new organization’s namesake, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, coined the term in his Cassandra-like 1961 farewell address. If that isn’t proof our forever-war problems are systemic rather than discrete, I don’t know what is.
That short speech of mine was occasioned by the 19th anniversary of our absurd Afghan War, the conflict you couldn’t singlehandedly stop in time to save me from a second surge excursion. Anyway, don’t beat yourself up about that, Bill. Like you said, the war-state beast is humongous and our buddy Bacevich has been beating this drum since you were still wearing Air Force blue. Under the circumstances and in these pandemic times, what could be more appropriate than a buck-up from that ever-cheery French novelist of plagues and philosopher Albert Camus: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
And you won’t believe this, but I had to stop there a moment to field a tortured text from an ex-student of mine turned Army lieutenant who’s now straddling those spheres of doubt and dissent that you and I know all too well. You may recall that I penned a piece last year for our mutual friend Tom Engelhardt on “Watching My Students Turn Into Soldiers of Empire.” Damned if that wasn’t a hard pill to swallow. Come to think of it, that must be precisely the feeling of failure you’ve described in our recent correspondence.
Well, at least the military dissent gestation period seems to be shortening. I commissioned exactly 20 years after you. The last crop of cadets from the freshman history class I taught at West Point after I returned from those wars were just 15 years behind me and some of them are now in doubt deep.
The thing is, I fear you’re a better man than I am, my friend. I can seethe script that’s coming down the dusty and well-trodden trail, but I’m not sure I could stomach writing a co-column with one of those kids — let alone attending one of their funerals.
I guess we old hands had better get to work. In the battle against endless war, our motto has to be: no retreat, no surrender.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen and William J. Astore