This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In some closet, I still have toy soldiers from my 1950s childhood. They played a crucial role in an all-American world of good guys and bad guys I learned about, in part, from the westerns and war movies my father took me to at local movie theaters. I can still remember playing out those long-lost stories out with a motley assortment of bluecoats, redcoats, GIs (of the green plastic variety), and Indians on the floor of my remarkably empty room in the era before childhood had been truly discovered as a marketplace of significance. I didn't even have blocks to build battlefields, so I used my books, which, in two facing rows, became cliffs on either side of a narrow defile. The treacherous Indians would peer over The Pony Express or Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, commanding the heights of the valley of death below into which the cavalry would have to ride. Preparing their ambush, they would "lie" on top of books or "crouch" behind them, fingering -- in my imagination, of course -- bows, tomahawks, or guns.
Into that grim valley, the bluecoats (and because I had too few of them, the GIs and redcoats from other wars entirely) would ride. Well, actually most of them weren't mounted because I was short a reasonable troop of cavalry or even a full contingent of foot soldiers. Choosing the order of the cast of characters for that "ride" and so who was to be handed over to destruction lent individual character and value to each treasured good guy. Yet, if the initial ambush was to be satisfying, death had to be faced, which meant choosing the most lackluster of those figures -- casualties of previous battles with chipped paint, broken limbs, or busted-off rifles -- to fall in the first cascade of arrows. The crucial question was when to stop the killing of the bluecoats and begin the destined slaughter of the Indians with which all such stories in that bygone era had to end. A satisfying cutoff point was needed, especially given a countervailing temptation -- to go all the way, to wipe out every last bluecoat. Sometimes it was powerful enough that I found myself almost siding with the Indians, which hinted at something novel hidden away in this traditional storytelling process. It also hinted at a moment, still years away in my life, when in the midst of a grim, never-ending war in Vietnam, that American war story of my childhood, the very definition of who was a good guy and a bad guy, would be turned on its head. Yet, in all those "battles" on the floor of my room, I never gave in to that temptation and brought myself to test out what another kind of story would truly feel like.
Amid the carnage, as arrows rained down, a few Indians would begin to fall. There was no particular order, no special precedence in the roll call of death, since bad guys were, by their nature, essentially indistinguishable, the only exception being "the chief." He held a silver-bladed tomahawk, and miraculously in those days, his arm actually pivoted at the shoulder. As the sole Indian with a distinguishing trait, he was invariably the last to die.
These scenes from my childhood -- and with minor variations I suspect, from so many childhoods of that era -- came to mind when I read the latest piece by TomDispatch regular and Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, on our never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East. He raises a much-needed twenty-first-century question that still couldn't be more awkward: Who, on the all-too-real, still-spreading American battlefields of our world, are the good guys and who are the bad guys of our time? And then, of course, there's that other question: What story, if any, about the wars of our moment will future American children, no longer undoubtedly on the floors of their rooms but in as yet unknown entertainment environments, play? Tom
Worth Dying For?
When It Comes to the War in the Greater Middle East, Maybe We're the Bad Guys
By Danny Sjursen
I used to command soldiers. Over the years, lots of them actually. In Iraq, Colorado, Afghanistan, and Kansas. And I'm still fixated on a few of them like this one private first class (PFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. All of 18, he was short, scrawny, and popular. Nine months after graduating from high school, he'd found himself chasing the Taliban with the rest of our gang. At five foot nothing, I once saw him step into an irrigation canal and disappear from sight -- all but the two-foot antenna on his radio. In my daydreams, I always see the same scene, the moment his filthy, grizzled baby face reappeared above that ditch, a cigarette still dangling loosely from his lips. His name was Anderson and I can remember thinking at that moment: What will I tell his mother if he gets killed out here?
And then... poof... it's 2017 again and I'm here in Kansas, pushing papers at Fort Leavenworth, those days in the field long gone. Anderson himself survived his tour of duty in Afghanistan, though I've no idea where he is today. A better commander might. Several of his buddies were less fortunate. They died, or found themselves short a limb or two, or emotionally and morally scarred for life.
From time to time I can't help thinking of Anderson, and others like him, alive and dead. In fact, I wear two bracelets on my wrist engraved with the names of the young men who died under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq, six names in all. When I find a moment, I need to add another. It wasn't too long ago that one of my soldiers took his own life. Sometimes the war doesn't kill you until years later.
And of this much I'm certain: the moment our nation puts any PFC Anderson in harm's way, thousands of miles and light years from Kansas, there had better be a damn good reason for it, a vital, tangible national interest at stake. At the very least, this country better be on the right side in the conflicts we're fighting.
The Wrong Side
It's long been an article of faith here: the United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the planet's "indispensable nation." But what if we're wrong? After all, as far as I can tell, the view from the Arab or African "street" tells a different story altogether. Americans tend to loathe the judgments of foreigners, but sober strategy demands that once in a while we walk the proverbial mile in the global shoes of others. After all, almost 16 years into the war on terror it should be apparent that something isn't working. Perhaps it's time to ask whether the United States is really playing the role of the positive protagonist in a great global drama.
I know what you're thinking: ISIS, the Islamic State, is a truly awful outfit. And so it is and the U.S. is indeed combatting it, though various allies and even adversaries (think: Iran) are doing most of the fighting. Still, with the broader war for the Greater Middle East in mind, wouldn't it be appropriate to stop for a moment and ask: Just whose side is America really on?
Certainly, it's not the side of the average Arab. That should be apparent. Take a good, hard look at the region and it's obvious that Washington mainly supports the interests of Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt's military dictator, and various Gulf State autocracies. Or consider the actions and statements of the Trump administration and of the two administrations that preceded it and here's what seems obvious: the United States is in many ways little more than an air force, military trainer, and weapons depot for assorted Sunni despots. Now, that's not a point made too often -- not in this context anyway -- because it's neither a comfortable thought for most Americans, nor a particularly convenient reality for establishment policymakers to broadcast, but it's the truth.
Yes, we do fight ISIS, but it's hardly that simple. Saudi Arabia, our main regional ally, may portray itself as the leader of a "moderate Sunni block" when it comes to both Iran and terrorism, but the reality is, at best, far grayer than that. The Saudis -- with whom President Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal during the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip back in May -- have spent the last few decades spreading their intolerant brand of Islam across the region. In the process, they've also supported al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.
Maybe you're willing to argue that al-Qaeda spin-offs aren't ISIS, but don't forget who brought down those towers in New York. While President Trump enjoyed a traditional sword dance with his Saudi hosts -- no doubt gratifying his martial tastes -- the air forces of the Saudis and their Gulf state allies were bombing and missiling Yemeni civilians into the grimmest of situations, including a massive famine and a spreading cholera epidemic amid the ruins of their impoverished country. So much for the disastrous two-year Saudi war there, which goes by the grimly ironic moniker of Operation Restoring Hope and for which the U.S. military provides midair refueling and advanced munitions, as well as intelligence.
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