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General News    H3'ed 11/7/19

Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Inauspicious Futures in the U.S. Army

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What a strange world we're in! Imagine that only recently Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the remaining 1,000 U.S. military personnel from Syria (launching a bloodbath in Kurdish-controlled areas on its northern border in the process). He was, if you remember, bringing them all "home." Almost immediately, however, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made it clear that they weren't actually going home but being transferred to western Iraq. Oh yes, and perhaps 150 of them were actually being left at al-Tanf, a small American military base in southern Syria. That was, however, before the Iraqi military insisted that those U.S. troops were not welcome to stay in that country, while someone whispered in Donald Trump's ear the magic words "Syrian oil" to him. Next thing anyone knew, the man who had always claimed we shouldn't have invaded Iraq but should have taken that country's oil was thinking about doing just that when it came to Syria (even though its oil fields are largely not operational at the moment).

Almost instantly, new American troops, Bradley fighting vehicles, and even tanks were being sent into Syria. Now, it seems -- at least before the next news story comes out -- that something like 900 mostly new American troops are, or will soon be, back in that country. In other words, for all the blood and hoopla, the president withdrew at best perhaps 100 troops, none of whom seem to be going home. Think of this as the geopolitical equivalent of a magic trick. Presto, they're gone! Change-o, they're back! And all of this, mind you, while the president was sending yet more American military personnel into Saudi Arabia, so that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region as a whole would continue to rise precipitously (up about 14,000 since last May), even as he continues to brag about ending America's wars and bringing the troops home.

This Trumpian version of abracadabra might be little short of amusing if war, blood, and death weren't the essence of it all. And for TomDispatch regular and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen, the president's version of a magic trick is even more painful for the most personal of reasons. He once taught some of the officers about to be engulfed in all of this. Tom

Watching My Students Turn Into Soldiers of Empire
A New Generation of West Pointers Joins America's Hopeless Wars
By Danny Sjursen

Patches, pins, medals, and badges are the visible signs of an exclusive military culture, a silent language by which soldiers and officers judge each other's experiences, accomplishments, and general worth. In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the "combat patch" on one's right shoulder -- evidence of a deployment with a specific unit -- had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars "on terror," the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn't boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they'd seen "the elephant."

We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother -- as was mandatory for a 17-year-old -- put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, "peace-keeping" deployment in a place like Kosovo.

Sure, the U.S. was then quietly starving hundreds of thousands of children with a crippling sanctions regime against autocrat Saddam Hussein's Iraq, occasionally lobbing cruise missiles at "terrorist" encampments here or there, and garrisoning much of the globe. Still, the life of a conventional Army officer in the late 1990s did fit pretty closely with my high-school fantasies.

You won't be surprised to learn, however, that the world of future officers at the Academy irreparably changed when those towers collapsed in my home town of New York. By the following May, it wasn't uncommon to overhear senior cadets on the phone with girlfriends or fiance'es explaining that they were heading for war upon graduation.

As a plebe (freshman), I still had years ahead in my West Point journey during which our world changed even more. Older cadets I'd known would soon be part of the invasion of Afghanistan. Drinking excessively at a New York Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day in 2003, I watched in wonder as, on TV, U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on Iraq as part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's promised "shock-and-awe" campaign.

Soon enough, the names of former cadets I knew well were being announced over the mess hall loudspeaker at breakfast. They'd been killed in Afghanistan or, more commonly, in Iraq.

My greatest fear then, I'm embarrassed to admit, was that I'd miss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn't long after my May 28, 2005, graduation that I'd serve in Baghdad. Later, I would be sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I buried eight young men under my direct command. Five died in combat; three took their own lives. After surviving the worst of it with my body (though not my mind) intact, I was offered a teaching position back at my alma mater. During my few years in the history department at West Point, I taught some 300 or more cadets. It was the best job I ever had.

I think about them often, the ones I'm still in touch with and the majority whom I'll never hear from or of again. Many graduated last year and are already out there carrying water for empire. The last batch will enter the regular Army next May. Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn't quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in... hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to "victory" of any sort, no matter how defined.

A New Generation of Cadets Serving the Empire Abroad

West Point seniors ("first-class cadets") choose their military specialties and their first duty-station locations in a manner reminiscent of the National Football League draft. This is unique to Academy grads and differs markedly from the more limited choices and options available to the 80% of officers commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Candidate School (OCS).

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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