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General News    H4'ed 12/8/20

Tomgram: William Astore and Danny Sjursen, Pen Pals of War

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

TomDispatch is essentially a no-submissions site. The only exception I've made over the years has been for those in the U.S. military or retired from it who, miraculously enough, became critical of it and the forever wars that it so relentlessly pursued. I've always felt that they had something of importance to offer the rest of us. The first such out-of-the-blue email to arrive in the TD mailbox came from Bill Astore. Given this 76-year-old brain of mine that's tossing out memories with abandon, it's a small miracle (or testimony of a sort) that the message from the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel that appeared in September 2007 still sticks with me so vividly.

I was already publishing the work of Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, because I had been deeply impressed by his book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War and had gotten in touch with him. (I would later become his editor at Metropolitan Books.) That first Astore email pointed out something that, at the time, I had seen no one else say: that the patches, badges, and medals American generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower had once worn in small numbers and modestly indeed had become military glitz of the first order that more or less literally covered the chests of American commanders like Iraq surge general David Petraeus. Eerily enough, Astore added, their bemedaled chests had come to resemble those of Russian generals in the previous century when, ambushed in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was starting to go down in flames.

I thought it a fascinating observation and the next thing either of us knew, Astore was writing for TomDispatch. Thirteen years later, he's written something like 75 pieces for this site and I've never stopped being struck by them.

Danny Sjursen's first email didn't arrive for another 10 years. He had been reading TomDispatch while a captain still deployed in Afghanistan. He was, by the time he wrote, back in the U.S., and a uniformed, not retired, critic of this country's wars. "It's good to know," as I wrote in my introduction to that inaugural post of his in 2017, "that, even if not at the highest ranks of the U.S. military, there are officers who have been able to take in what they experienced up close and personal in Iraq and Afghanistan and make some new -- not desperately old -- sense of it." He, too, has been writing for TomDispatch ever since.

Today, the two men take a unique look back at the paths they took to becoming critics of America's wars and its war machine. Tom

Spilling Ink and Spilling Blood
Fighting and Writing Against America's Forever Wars
By William J. Astore and Danny Sjursen

If you have a moment, how about joining two retired officers, Bill Astore and me, Danny Sjursen, as we think about this country's catastrophic forever wars that, regardless of their deadly costs and lack of progress, never seem quite to end?

Recently, in a podcast chat about our very different but somehow twin journeys through those wars, he and I got to thinking about what might have happened if our paths had crossed so much earlier. Both of us, after all, have been writing for TomDispatch for years. As Bill once said to me, thinking about his post-military writing career, "You know, Danny, in my small way I was trying -- and failing -- to stop the wars you were heading into."

Now that's an interesting, if disturbing, thought. But Bill, what would you have said to Lieutenant Danny (that was me once upon a time!) and how might he have responded then?

Who could know now, of course? Still, here's our retrospective attempt to sort that out in joint correspondence in which we track about 15 years' worth of this country's unending wars.

The Frankenstein and Star Trek Years of American War

Bill: When you were graduating from West Point in 2005 and shining your lieutenant's bars, Danny, I was putting my uniform away after 20 years in the Air Force and driving to Pennsylvania for a new career as a history professor. I thought I'd teach and maybe write a book or two. I never pictured myself as a dissenter, and I'd never spoken out publicly against the wars we were in. The one time I was interviewed about them, in 2005 when I was still the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, I remember saying that I preferred our troops use words rather than rifle butts to communicate with the Afghans and Iraqis. Of course, we had so few troops who spoke Arabic or Pashto or Dari that we leaned on our rifles instead, which meant lots of dead and alienated people in both countries.

In the summer of 2007, I was increasingly disgusted by the way the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was hiding behind the bemedaled chest of Iraq commander General David Petraeus. Our civilian commander-in-chief, George W., was avoiding responsibility for the disastrous Iraq War by sending Petraeus, then known as the "surge" general, before Congress to testify that some sort of victory was still possible, even as he hedged his talk of progress with words like "fragile" and "reversible."

So I got off my butt and wrote an article that argued we needed to end the Iraq War and our folly of "spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon." I submitted it to newspapers like the New York Times with no success. Fortunately, a friend told me about TomDispatch, where Tom Engelhardt had been publishing critical articles by retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. Luckily for me, Tom liked my piece and published it as "Saving the Military from Itself" in October of that same year.

That article put me on the path of dissent from America's forever wars, even if I wasn't so much antiwar as anti-dumb-war then. As I asked at the time, how do you win someone else's civil war? Being a Star Trek fan, I referred to the Kobayashi Maru, a "no-win" scenario introduced in the second Star Trek movie. I saw our troops, young lieutenants like yourself in Iraq, being stuck in a no-win situation and I was already convinced that, no matter how much Petraeus talked about "metrics" and "progress," it wasn't going to happen, that "winning" really meant leaving, and we haven't won yet since, god help us, we're still there.

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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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