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General News    H3'ed 9/23/19

Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Living at War (Forever)

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I've never forgotten something that Amr Musa, then head of the Arab League, said in 2004: "The gates of hell are open in Iraq." That was just a year and a half after the American invasion and occupation of that country. How horrifyingly right he was, though no one paid the slightest attention. Today, TomDispatchregular and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen offers a firsthand account of just what it felt like to ride through those gates, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, as the U.S. war on terror became, functionally, a war for the spread of terror, as hell on earth, whether measured in death, destruction, or displacement, was let loose across much of the Greater Middle East and later Africa.

My only question: Where was Amr Musa when, in 2015, the Saudis flew through the gates of hell in Yemen (with the backing of the U.S. military)? In the ensuing four years, they devastated that land, while seeming, except for a couple of border incidents and a small drone attack, to get away scot-free (even as they also murdered a Saudi citizen and Washington Post columnist at their consulate in Istanbul, Turkey). And yet, only recently, those gates opened up in a new way for the Saudis, too, as a series of retaliatory drone and possibly cruise missile attacks, assumedly initiated by Yemen's Houthi rebels, turned their own skies into a facsimile of hell, while damaging major crude oil processing facilities. In addition, as the Houthis were threatening future strikes (against which the Saudis, despite spending staggering sums on American weaponry, seem to have no defense), the landscape of hell only flamed brighter.

In case no one's noticed, by the way, those gates are still wide open and President Trump, "locked and loaded," having just axed a national security advisor who had always dreamed of war with Iran, still has his own opportunity to walk through them. Believe me, were he to launch military attacks on Iran, hell on Earth would be the name for it (and the global oil industry and the economy better watch out, too, along with his 2020 election campaign). Tom

Just When I Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse"
A Veteran in a World of Never-Ending Wars and Improvised Explosive Devices
By Danny Sjursen

Recently, on a beautiful Kansas Saturday, I fell asleep early, exhausted by the excitement and ultimate disappointment of the Army football team's double overtime loss to highly favored Michigan. Having turned against America's forever wars and the U.S. military as an institution while I was still in it, West Point football, I'm almost ashamed to admit, is my last guilty martial pleasure. Still, having graduated from the Academy, taught history there, and spent 18 long years in the Army, I find something faintly hopeful about a team of undersized, overmatched, non-National Football League prospects facing off against one of the biggest schools in college football.

I awoke, though, early the next morning to the distressing -- if hardly surprising -- news that President Trump had spiked months of seemingly promising peace talks with the Taliban, blocking any near-term hope for an end to America's longest, most hopeless war of all. My by-now-uncomfortably-familiar response was to go even deeper into a funk, based on a vague, if overwhelming, sense that the world only manages to get worse on a near-daily basis. For this longtime skeptic of U.S. foreign policy, once also a secret dreamer and idealist, that reality drives me toward political nihilism, a feeling that nothing any of us can do will halt the spread of an increasingly self-destructive empire and the collapse of democracy at home.

Looking back, I can trace my long journey from burgeoning neoconservative believer to Iraq War opponent to war-on-terror dissenter to disenfranchised veteran nonbeliever. Thinking about this in the wake of Army's loss and those cancelled Afghan peace talks, during a typically morose conversation with Tom, of TomDispatch, I realized that I could tell a story of escalating military heresy and disappointment simply from the three years of articles I'd written for his website. It mattered little that, at the time, I imagined them as anything but the stuff of autobiography.

If all this sounds gloomy, writing itself has been cathartic for me and may have saved me on this strange journey of mine. So, join me on a little autobiographical fast march through a world increasingly filled with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as seen through the eyes of one apostate military veteran. Maybe some of you will even recognize aspects of your own life journeys in what follows.

"Hope and Change" in Iraq

In October 2006, when Second Lieutenant Sjursen arrived in Iraq, Baghdad was still, at least figuratively, aflame. It took only a few months of repetitious, useless "presence patrols," a dozen IED strikes on my scout platoon, the deaths of three of my troopers and the maiming of others, as well as ubiquitous civilian deaths in marketplace bombings, to free me from a sense that the war in Iraq served any purpose whatsoever. Hearing again and again, even from long oppressed Shia Iraqis, that life under Sunni autocrat Saddam Hussein had been better, it became increasingly apparent that the U.S. invasion, launched by the Republican administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on thoroughly bogus grounds in the spring of 2003, had shattered their nation and perhaps destabilized a region as well.

Just 23 years old (and, by my own estimation, immature at that), I -- and a surprising number of my junior officer peers -- started cautiously acting out. I grew my hair longer than regulations allowed and posted World War I-era antiwar poems by British veterans like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen on my locker. I eventually even began "phoning in" my patrols, while attempting to avoid dicey, ambush-prone neighborhoods whenever possible.

And yet, despite a growing sense of darkness, I'd yet to lose all hope. At home, the Democrats (many of whom had once voted for the Iraq War) won back Congress in November 2006, largely thanks to a sudden burst of antiwar, anti-Bush rhetoric. In 2007, I began using my limited Internet time to ingest transcripts of every speech by or article about an upstart young African-American Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama. Unlike anointed frontrunner Hillary Clinton, he seemed inspirational, an outsider, and -- as an Illinois state senator -- an early opponent of the very invasion that had landed me in my macabre predicament. I quickly decided he was my man, buying into his "hope and change" rhetoric, while dreaming of the day he'd end my war, saving countless lives, including possibly my own.

Sadly, if predictably, despite the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and monthly U.S. military fatalities that regularly hit triple digits, nothing could stop the Bush administration from continuing to escalate the war. I remember the moment in April 2007 when I heard that, thanks to President Bush's announced troop "surge" in Iraq, my squadron was designated to stay three months past our scheduled year-long deployment. It felt like a gut punch. Steve, my fellow lieutenant, and I chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes in silence, while leaning against the brick wall of our Baghdad barracks. Then we faced the music and broke the news to our distraught soldiers.

In that bloodiest year of the war, my squadron would lose another half-dozen men in combat, while nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemen and women would die. Yet that famed, widely hailed surge would, of course, ultimately fail. Not that most policymakers thought so at the time. The Bush-anointed, media-savvy new commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, sold a temporary drop in violence to a fawning Congress, including most of those Democrats, as a profound success. It scarcely mattered that the announced purpose of the surge -- to create space and time for a political reconciliation between Iraqi sects and ethnicities -- failed from the start. My long-shot dream that an "antiwar" Congress would cut off funds for the conflict remained just that.

Still, landing at my home base in Colorado that New Year's Eve, I remained almost unnaturally hopeful about Barack Obama as a potential savior. By April 2008, promoted to captain and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for advanced schooling, I found myself secretly canvassing for him across the Ohio River in Indiana, which had just gained swing-state status. If only he could best Republican candidate John McCain, I thought, he might rapidly end what he had once called "the dumb war." Given my single-minded focus on that possibility, I managed to ignore the way candidate Obama simultaneously called for an escalation of what he termed "the good war" in Afghanistan. Never mind, Obama won in November 2008. I spent Election Day drinking blue martinis and cheering him on with fellow dissenting officers. That night, holding my newly born infant son, I cried tears of joy as the election returns poured in.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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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