Shortly after Truthdig columnist Danny Sjursen left the Army, where he spent 18 years on active duty and rose to the rank of major, he sat down with Editor in Chief Robert Scheer for an interview about life after the military and a discussion about the conclusions he drew throughout his military career. Sjursen, who attended West Point and did several tours in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, opened up to Scheer about how leaving the institution where he spent most of his adult life has allowed him to finally be completely frank about his experiences, in his columns as well as in his recent book, "Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge."
"I'd like to think that I was always bold on active duty," Sjursen tells Scheer in the latest installment of "Scheer Intelligence," "but the reality is that I was censoring myself. You know, there is a degree of fear and harassment, and it's very passive-aggressive stuff. But the book was a labor of love [that] tears apart the notion of American exceptionalism that brought us to Iraq, to a folly."
Now, as Sjursen pursues a Ph.D and a career as a writer while adapting to his new life and grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the former soldier is still profoundly troubled by his experiences at war, not only as he led soldiers to their deaths, but also as he watched U.S. forces devastate Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he went to Iraq thinking the trouble with the war was the way it was being fought, he left with a very different impression of the conflict.
"What I saw happen to the Iraqi people [haunted me more] than what happened to my soldiers," Sjursen says. "Not only the bodies in the street, not only the civil war that was being waged, but I found that more than 90% of the very friendly Iraqis " Sunni and Shia, they all told me that life was better under Saddam. ... That was a big turning point, when I started to say, 'Wait a second. You know, forget about fighting the war poorly; we shouldn't be fighting this war at all.'"
Recounting the many ways the U.S. created worse conditions for Iraqis after the death of Saddam, Sjursen explains that the nearly half a million Iraqis who have died since the early 2000s were not killed directly by American soldiers, but by the unleashing of a "Pandora's box of sectarian civil war in what was once a secular society." The war in Afghanistan, while fought under different pretenses, was no less brutal or foolish than the Iraq War, in Sjursen's eyes.
"The reality is, any chance of victory in Afghanistan was over the minute -- and this only took weeks -- the minute after we switched from a counter-terrorism strategy, a surgical, law enforcement-type attack on the al-Qaida system -- the minute we switched from that to nation-building, counterinsurgency and occupation, the war was already lost."
But the blood on Sjursen's hands, which he remains conscious of long after his last deployment, is on all Americans' hands, as the Truthdig columnist points out. And with no end in sight to what have been dubbed our "forever wars," it's unlikely we'll be able to wash our hands clean of these ongoing tragedies any time soon.
Listen to Sjursen and Scheer as they talk about everything from WikiLeaks to the accumulating failures of America's leaders, at home and abroad. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of "Scheer Intelligence" here.
Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of "Scheer Intelligence," where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it's someone -- this is sort of the second part of an interview that began, oh, months ago, when Major Danny Sjursen was active duty in the Army. And he had spent 18 years of his life, ever since signing up at West Point -- being admitted at West Point, a kid from Staten Island, a basically poor, working-class background. A lot of firemen and cops in his community and family. And affected by 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center. But he went to West Point before 9/11. And people just thought, well, you know, god, they're letting poor kids in there now, because the congressmen and the bankers, they don't want their children to grow up to be lieutenants or even majors; he became a major eventually. So the military academy is actually more merit-based now than it might have once been. And so welcome, Major Sjursen. How are you?
Danny Sjursen: Oh, I'm great. Thanks for having me again, Bob.
RS: OK. And the reason I wanted to talk to you today is that, first of all, it's two months now since you've been an active duty major. It's something you've done, I'm sure, your whole life, adult life. And you were a lieutenant, you were in Iraq for a year and a half or so; you were in Afghanistan, and you were deployed other times. How many times were you deployed?
DS: Ah, just two combat deployments and then some short tours for...
RS: Yeah, but in many other countries and so forth...