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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Putting the "War" in the "War on Terror"

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Consider the latest news from America's war zones, still spreading across the Greater Middle East and Africa. The U.S. military is now reportedly building up its troop strength (mostly Special Operations forces) in Somalia. Their number has already doubled, reaching 500, while U.S. airstrikes are increasing against al-Shabab, the well-entrenched Islamist terror outfit in that country. We're talking about the largest concentration of American troops in Somalia since the infamous Black Hawk Down debacle of almost a quarter-century ago. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, U.S. troop numbers (now considered a "secret") are rising into the 14,000-16,000 range with at least 3,000 new troops recently sent in by the Pentagon. U.S. air strikes there are also on the rise. Recently, American B-52s (the bomber of choice of the Vietnam War) and the latest F-22 jet fighters have been loosed for the first time in what may be a "prolonged" campaign against suspected Taliban opium "factories." At the same time, even though the Pentagon claims ISIS has been defeated in Syria, unknown numbers of American troops will remain there anyway. (In these years, militarily speaking, the U.S. always arrives, but never leaves.) In fact, as foreign policy expert Micah Zenko noted recently, in the past few months the numbers of U.S. military personnel across the Middle East (excluding both Afghanistan and Somalia) have gone from 40,000 to 54,000, a jump of 33%.

Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, it's obvious enough that this is a pattern, just not one that gets significant attention here. America's wars go on and on. Tactics vary modestly. Troop strength rises and ebbs, only to rise again. The air war similarly ebbs and then escalates again. For those in charge of American policy in that ever-vaster region of conflict, the options always seem the same. Nothing is imaginable but more (or a little less) of what's been tried for the last decade and a half. No less important, there is remarkably little discussion of this phenomenon in the U.S. Since the vast surge of opposition to the coming invasion of Iraq faded and died out with the taking of Baghdad, protests against, resistance to, or even serious critiques of America's twenty-first-century wars have been at best minimalist. By now, this has become something like the modern American way. That those conflicts add up to an ongoing disaster with a staggering price tag seems to matter not at all.

Logically, this should be the definition of brain dead, and yet the news of the latest bombing campaigns against the growing Taliban opium trade in Afghanistan or al-Shabab's horror show in Somalia remains largely back-page stuff. Who cares? What could possibly go wrong?

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Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, offers an answer of his own as he looks back at September 12, 2001, and considers the true missed opportunities of that moment. Tom

What If?
An Alternative Strategy for 9/12/2001
By Danny Sjursen

"Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."

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-- Thucydides

You've heard the platitude that hindsight is 20/20. It's true enough and, though I've been a regular skeptic about what policymakers used to call the Global War on Terror, it's always easier to poke holes in the past than to say what you would have done. My conservative father was the first to ask me what exactly I would have suggested on September 12, 2001, and he's pressed me to write this article for years. The supposed rub is this: under the pressure of that attack and the burden of presidential responsibility, even "liberals" -- like me, I guess -- would have made much the same decisions as George W. Bush and company.

Many readers may cringe at the thought, but former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has to be taken seriously when she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would inevitably have seen the world through the lens of the Bush administration. I've long argued that just about every Bush-era policy that followed 9/11 was an unqualified disaster. Nevertheless, it remains important to ponder the weight piled upon a president in the wake of unprecedented terror attacks. What would you have done? What follows is my best crack at that thorny question, 16 years after the fact, and with the accumulated experiences of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taking It Personally

9/11 was an intimate affront to me. It hit home hard. I watched those towers in my hometown burn on televisions I could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) boxing class at West Point. My father worked across Church Street from Manhattan's World Trade Center. Only hours later did I learn that he'd safely escaped on the last ferryboat to Staten Island. Two uncles -- both New York City firemen -- hopelessly dug for comrades in the rubble for weeks. Stephen, the elder of the two, identified the body of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, just days after the attacks.

In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, everyone seemed to work for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, garbage men, transit workers. I knew several of each. My mother spent months attending wakes and funerals. Suddenly, tons of streets on the Island were being renamed for dead police and firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. Me, I continued to plod along through the typically trying life of a new cadet at West Point.

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It's embarrassing now to look back at my own immaturity. I listened in as senior cadets broke the news of war to girlfriends and fiance'es, enviously hanging on every word. If only I, too, could live out the war drama I'd always longed for. Less than two years later, I found myself drunk with another uncle -- and firefighter -- in a New York pub on St. Patrick's Day. This was back when an Army T-shirt or a fireman's uniform meant a night of free drinks in that post-9/11 city. I watched the television screen covetously as President Bush delivered a final, 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. I inhaled, wished for a long war, and gazed at the young, attractive lead singer of the band performing in that pub. She was wearing a patron's tied-up New York Fire Department uniform blouse with a matching cap cocked to the side. It was meant to be sexy and oh-so-paramilitary. It might seem unbelievable now, but that was still my -- and largely our -- world on March 17, 2003.

By the time I got my "chance" to join America's war on terror, in October 2006, Baghdad was collapsing into chaos as civil war raged and U.S. deaths were topping 100 per month. This second lieutenant still hoped for glory, even as the war's purpose was already slipping ever further away. I never found it (glory, that is). Not in Iraq or, years later, in Afghanistan. Sixteen years and two months on from 9/11, I'm a changed man, inhabiting a forever altered reality. Two wars, two marriages, and so many experiences later, the tragedy and the mistakes seem so obvious. Perhaps we should have known all along. But most didn't.

How to Lose A War (Hint: Fight It!)

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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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