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.