Above photo: Photo credit: Spc. Spencer Case The U.S. Army
A combat veteran reflects on the moral impact America’s longest war has had on its own people.
Nearly 19 years into the Afghanistan War, it seems the U.S. might be finally ready to end the longest armed conflict in its history. The Trump administration announced in late February that a peace deal was being negotiated with the Taliban and there was intention of recalling U.S. troops. Retired Maj. Danny Sjursen, an author and historian who spent half of his life in the Army, speaks with host Robert Scheer on this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence” to analyze how we got caught up in Afghanistan in the first place.
Tracing the conflict through his personal and professional experiences, Sjursen recalls how the Sept. 11 attacks became the impetus for so many young men like himself to put their lives on the line for a country they believed would be on the right side of history. Not long into his service, however, the retired army major learned that the multiple wars he fought in had little to do with the terrorist attacks billed as the cause, as evidenced by his first deployment.
“I went to Iraq before Afghanistan,” says Sjursen, “And I think that is illustrative of this war and some of its absurdity and irrationality, because when those towers came down—and then when we found out soon afterwards that it was probably Afghan-based, or at least that [Osama] bin Laden was Afghan based—I mean, one would assume that my first deployment would be Afghanistan.[Instead in 2005] I went to Iraq, [and] actually we had about 120,000 to 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, and we had about 20,000 in Afghanistan.”
“The big irony here,” Scheer remarks, “is that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So, you know, we hear a lot about fake news now in the era of Trump, [but] the fact is, the Iraq War is one of the stunning examples of fake news.”
The “Scheer Intelligence” host goes on to remind listeners that Al Qaeda, Bin Laden’s organization, “couldn’t operate in Iraq” and the entire premise for invading Iraq was fabricated weapons of mass destruction alleged to be in Saddam Hussein’s possession. Almost two decades later, with countless American, Afghani and Iraqi lives lost, and ever-growing instability in the Middle East, it’s never been clearer that the two conflicts, which became inextricably linked, were engendered by government propaganda that mainstream media had no qualms about propagating. Scheer points out that while government and media both carry the lion’s share of the responsibility for the wars, there may be other people to blame for what are widely known as our forever wars.
“We think we live in a society that is designed to encourage you to challenge power,” says the “Scheer Intelligence” host. “We have a sense of limited government, we have separation of powers, you have First Amendment freedoms and others. And yet—and I’m not just talking about people who are on active duty—people don’t speak out in general, you know. They go along.”
While the two analyze the careerism and power involved at the highest ranks of the military, the combat veteran concludes with a remarkable analysis that Sjursen admits will seem controversial.
“Those soldiers on the football fields that we see every Sunday are the good Germans that Hannah Arendt spoke of,” says the retired Army major. “And I was one of them. We are the foot soldiers for empire. [That’s] the truth of the matter. We went along to get along, and in the process, we were guilty.”
Drawing from his extensive knowledge as a historian, Sjursen nuances his comparison between Germans and Americans, adding that while the slaughter of the holocaust is not equivalent to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Americans, like Germans, were involved essentially illegal conflicts that cast a pall on our actions.
“The only difference between us and the Germans when it comes to the principles we laid downn[in the Nuremberg trials] is that we were the winners,” he concludes. “We were the winners. So we don’t apply those Nuremberg principles of, hey, you have to speak out against aggression and lies and militarism in the world–we don’t apply that to our soldiers or our generals. And we won’t until we’re not the prevalent power in the world.”
Listen to the full discussion between Scheer and Sjursen as the two trace the historical context of the continual bloodshed that has marked U.S. history for the better part of this century. You can also read the full transcript below the media player.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Danny Sjursen. I’ve done this with you before a couple of times. Danny Sjursen is a retired major in the U.S. Army. He was in Iraq, he was in Afghanistan, he spent 18 years in the Army. As a young kid living in Staten Island, New York, he managed to get into West Point, an elite school–not quite so elite now that the children of congressmen are not sent there; the military is not thought to be a great career–and he got in and he graduated, as you do, as a lieutenant. And he, I’ll let him tell the rest of the story. He ended up going to Iraq, and then he went to Afghanistan.
But the occasion for this interview is to try to figure out America’s longest war, and that’s the war in Afghanistan. It’s equal to the length of World War I, World War II, and I think the Korean War, all three. Eighteen years. And maybe it ended about three, four days ago, from when we’re recording this now. And it was, I think, February 29th that the Trump administration–in fact the president himself–announced that they had made a deal with the dreaded Taliban, the people who were in charge of Afghanistan when al Qaeda was there. And the al Qaeda people, mostly from Arab countries, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are the people who attacked the United States, World Trade Center and Pentagon, in 9/11.
Now, you’re only 36 years old. So your whole life, really–certainly your adult life–has been about terrorism, 9/11, war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan is really the frame for it, and that was your last service. So take us through it. You were born in 1983, and so when the World–you do the math, when the World Trade Center blew up, you were in Staten Island. Your family was made up of cops, firemen, first responders. Set the mood. What happened to your life then?
DS: Well, I mean, you’re right that 9/11 and the war on terror has completely defined my adult life. In fact, it was only a few months ago where I passed the point where I have now been a civilian more years than I was Army. For the longest time, I had been in the military longer than I’d been a civilian.
I was actually at West Point. So I had shown up at West Point for basic training in July of 2001, in basically peacetime–sort of, you know, at least compared to what we had after 9/11. I had just finished basic training. I was in boxing class, which is a mandatory class at West Point, and still is. And someone ran in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The instructor, who was a military instructor, boxing guy, let us run into the fitness center and watch, and I actually watched in real time as the second plane hit. And so yeah, clearly, my life changed in that moment. I was–I had turned 18, ah, 36 days earlier. So I was a young, young man; really a kid. And yet I did understand that my life had just irreparably changed. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to come of it. In the moment, I was worried whether all my uncles were dead, and I was very lucky in the sense that they weren’t, but a lot of family, friends, and neighborhood people were killed. Per capita, Staten Island was devastated, my borough.
But, you know, I knew that it was war; I didn’t know how long that war was going to go. But what is instructive, before we move on, is that you mentioned that I went to Iraq before Afghanistan. And I think that is illustrative of this war and some of its absurdity and irrationality, because when those towers came down–and then when we found out soon afterwards that it was probably Afghan-based, or at least that bin Laden was Afghan based–I mean, one would assume that my first deployment would be Afghanistan. But when I graduated in 2005, and a year later when I was done with all my training and all, and I went to Iraq, actually we had about 120,000 to 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, and we had about 20,000 in Afghanistan. And what was interesting was that everyone in my class at West Point was deployed at the time that I was deployed. All of us, like every single–like, to a man and woman, we were all in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, 90% of us were in Iraq; that was considered the tough duty. It was actually the preferred duty, because then you could say you were tough. Our friends who were in Afghanistan, we would either make fun of them for being in the easy war at the time, or alternately, once things got really bad in Iraq, we would envy them for being in Afghanistan. Because at that time, Afghanistan was the more peaceful of the two wars, or the less bloody. And of course that switched.
RS: But the big irony here is that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So, you know, and we hear a lot about fake news now in the era of Trump, and there’s a lot of self-congratulation in the media. And then Trump attacks the media as fake news, and so forth. But the fact is, the Iraq War is one of the stunning examples of fake news. And we were lied to about Iraq, because it had nothing to do with 9/11. Al Qaeda couldn’t operate in Iraq, right; the guys had been based in Afghanistan. And yet, you know, this was the deployment, the main war. And remind people about that. I mean, it was the lying about weapons of mass destruction, they wanted to get Saddam Hussein, and it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. It was absolutely fake news, a fake invasion, and a fake war.
DS: You know, you’re of the Vietnam–well, you’re older, but you know, you lived the Vietnam experience front to back. And no doubt, the Vietnam War was one of the great American tragedies, and it was built on lies. But I think that even Vietnam, at least the initial intervention, cannot hold a candle to the blatant lies and distortions of the Iraq War. You know, at least the Vietnam War, while completely flawed and absurd, was built on some version of an ideology of containment and anti-communism. But one could argue that the Iraq War comes almost out of nowhere. I mean, it’s ludicrous. So it’s built on basically two things, two lies. The big lie is that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, Condoleezza Rice says we have to go because we don’t want the evidence to be a mushroom cloud–in other words, a nuclear bomb going off; that was absurd. And the second thing was that Saddam somehow was linked to al Qaeda, which of course was completely untrue, because they were mortal enemies of Saddam. And they, you know, bin Laden and Saddam hated one another. It is ironic that I ended up in Iraq first. I will tell you that until I went to Afghanistan, or until about 2010 when Afghanistan ramped up during the Obama presidency, we didn’t give a second thought to Afghanistan. It was a side note, it was a footnote in the War on Terror. The real fighting, the real glory, was in Iraq. And my entire generation felt that way.
RS: But let’s talk about lying, because so much of it involves lying. So much of American foreign policy, unfortunately, involves lying. And so here is a movement, al Qaeda–let’s–you’re, I should give you a proper introduction. Danny Sjursen, in addition to ending up as a major, and in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also, after he graduated from West Point, went back to get a doctorate, or be working on a doctorate. He’s almost there, done the dissertation and all the tests, and ended up teaching at West Point, and has written a number of books. He wrote a book about the Iraq War. What’s the title, in case–
DS: Ghost Riders of Baghdad.
RS: Ghost Riders of Baghdad. He’s done a book that’s coming out in a couple of months on patriotism, and one might say it raises the question: Is patriotism toxic? Is it something to be respected? We could talk about that a little bit. And you’ve done sort of an American history, kind of to parallel that of Howard Zinn, of basically the military imperial history of America, going back to colonialism, the genocide against Native Americans, and taking it up to the present.
So here you are now, a professional historian, teacher, writer, and a product of wars that you cannot justify. So let’s take them in turn. At least with Afghanistan, the attack came or was planned in Afghanistan, to grab these airplanes, fly them into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon. And the people who were in Afghanistan, right–al Qaeda, bin Laden and so forth– were people that were, they weren’t from Afghanistan. Afghanistan, with all of its problems, and under development and so forth, was not really the birthplace, intellectually, of this terrorism. It was really Saudi Arabia, a strong ally of the United States under just about every president, right? And yet–so take us through that history. What was al Qaeda doing in Afghanistan? Why was the attack launched from there? And how did you end up first going to Iraq and then Afghanistan? It’s this crazy journey of war that you experienced, and people died under your command, and you killed people who were living there. And yet, it makes no sense. That’s the part that’s difficult. And not only does it not makes sense, most Americans don’t give a damn.
They’re bored by it, they don’t care. The fact that we may have peace with Afghanistan, after all of this violence and everything, doesn’t interest them. You’ve just spoken in my class at University of Southern California, where we’re recording this; most of the students don’t care, don’t know about it. We don’t have a draft. It’s like a video game war. So, but for you, it wasn’t a video game. So just give us a little sense of the history and your relation to both wars.
DS: Well, first of all, I was in your class last night, and I think I counted somewhere near, I don’t know, 50 to 70 students. And when polled and really pressed, only one of said students even knew that an Afghan peace deal had been brokered four days ago, or three days ago. So that’s instructive. You know, the thing to keep in mind is that, yes, there were no Afghans on those planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In fact, 15 out of 19 were Saudis, but all 19 out of 19 were from countries that were ostensibly allies of the United States, which is also instructive.
But getting back to the history a little bit, you know, why is bin Laden in Afghanistan giving marching orders? Now, first of all, the operation is planned in Hamburg and in San Diego, right, and in Florida. But the marching orders come, ostensibly, from Afghanistan with bin Laden. But why is he there? Well, it’s interesting, because bin Laden has a long relationship with Afghanistan. It’s his home away from home. He is Arab; he is Saudi. He is a member of a class of heroic–in the Middle East considered heroic Arabs known as the Afghan Arabs. These are the Arabs who decided to volunteer–almost like in the Spanish Civil War, right, like the guys who went over there from the United States, the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. These guys left their homes a thousand miles away and went to fight the Soviets. But why were the Soviets there?
So, very briefly, Afghanistan was not always the fountainhead of terrorism. In fact, not too long ago, women wore miniskirts in the cities of Afghanistan, in the 1960s and early seventies. America was building power plants there, and living openly, and it was actually a stop-off point on the hippie trail. Well, there was a–they had a king, a relatively benign king, in the sense of being secular. The United States knew that the Soviet Union was very concerned with Afghanistan, because Afghanistan butted up against all of their Central Asian republics. And so the Soviets were concerned when the king got overthrown by a communist organization. The Soviets were concerned that an Islamist–rural-based, from the same area as the Taliban is from today–insurgency that didn’t like communism, was going to gain power. Or that a faction within the Communist Party would gain power that wasn’t friendly to the Soviets. The United States actually, as a policy under the supposedly dovish Carter administration–under Brzezinski, right–
RS: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was born in Poland–and I’m not against immigrants, my parents were born elsewhere–but nonetheless somehow preoccupied with the Cold War and with the Soviet Union and freeing Poland and so forth, ends up being the architect of our involvement in Afghanistan. Because he sees it as a chapter in the Cold War. And he has a gimmick, and the gimmick is to give–as he said in an interview with Nouvel Observateur when he was Carter’s national security advisor–he defended it years later. He said, this was a bunch of hopped-up, crazy Muslims compared to our bringing down the Soviet Union. We tricked–we gave them their Vietnam, we trapped them in Afghanistan. That was his explanation.
DS: I mean, I think he saw this as a theater in a broader morality play. Like a very simple, sans- nuance morality play. And so what we found out from some unclassified documents, and then also he admits it, is that not–you know, the popular belief was that once the Soviets did invade Afghanistan, I believe it was either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve of 1979, that only then did America start backing the opponents of the Soviet invasion. But actually the reality is that under Brzezinski’s tutelage, with Carter’s blessing, we had actually started backing the Islamists who would later form the Taliban before the Soviets came in. And in fact, what we found out from these documents and his admissions is that we were trying to goad the Soviets into an invasion. Which happened, and it was a foolish invasion. And something to keep in mind is that there were serious, serious members, respected members of the communist ruling elite who were opposed to this invasion. Who knew this was going to be a quagmire, and predicted it.
Nevertheless, the Soviets come in. Now we see a real opportunity–and this is the CIA, this is the Reagan team–we’re going to sell weapons. The cities like Peshawar in western Pakistan become hotbeds of CIA activity. We arm what becomes the Taliban; they then were called the Mujahideen. We give them Stinger missiles, they start shooting Russian helicopters out of the sky wholesale. We send them packing, or the Mujahideen sends them packing with their tail between their legs.
Now most of the fighting, most of the most effective fighting against the Soviets, was done by native Afghans. But there was this very well-funded minority known as the Afghan Arabs– because Afghans are not Arab, they’re Pashtun or Dari. But a lot of these volunteers from the Arab world, one of whom was a little-known construction magnate’s son named Osama bin Laden–whose father, the most prominent Saudi construction magnate, had actually built several American bases in Saudi Arabia prior to this, had a very tight relationship with America. His son, who is a rather dogmatic Islamist, volunteers, takes millions from his father’s inheritance and such, and goes into Afghanistan. Sees a little combat, but mostly, his real responsibility is not necessarily with his rifle–although he tells a lot of war stories that aren’t true–but most of his contribution is financial, to the Taliban or to the Mujahideen. He builds tunnel systems in the mountains of Afghanistan that form the basis for the Mujahideen. And he is backed, tacitly and actually rather overtly, by the CIA.
And of course, this comes back in what Chalmers Johnson called blowback to hurt us, obviously. At the time, no one was playing the long game. You know, the idea was that if we could beat the Soviets in Afghanistan, if we can create a new Vietnam, get revenge for our Vietnam, that that would be sufficient. And no one realized that, look, for all the Soviet Union’s flaws, and for all the flaws of the communist government in Afghanistan, these are things, you know, we cannot deny. Education improved under communist rule in Afghanistan. Women’s rights improved. Freedom of expression, not necessarily free speech, but secular expression improved. And so actually, the United States was on the side of the more archaic and the more oppressive, rural, conservative Islamists.
RS: The United States was on the side of Islamic fanaticism. I mean, why beat around the bush here? You know, the fact of the matter is, our lives for the last, you know, 20 years, have been consumed with this idea of terrorism in the world, and we have to get rid of it. And it came as a great, convenient substitute for the Cold War; the Soviet Union had collapsed, we didn’t have a sophisticated enemy anywhere. We needed an enemy desperately, and we blew up something that had always existed, people engaging in acts of desperation, terror, violence, usually because they didn’t have navy and air force, and non-state actors, very often. But in this case, they were recruited by our CIA and brought to Afghanistan. And they not only messed up that country, but there was born the attack of 9/11 and the war on terror, which has consumed our lives, a lot of our resources, got a lot of people killed, right?
DS: It defined my entire adult life.
RS: Right. So you were a guy who, when you went into the military, was filled with idealism, I dare say, right? And you got caught up in this crazy theater of the absurd, right? And what were you thinking? You were a [good] American boy, and you’ve done this wonderful thing, you got into West Point from a working-class family, and now you’ve gone to America’s most elite military program. And you know, you become a captain, then you become a major. When did you know that first of all the Iraq war, which you wrote about, and then Afghanistan–when did you know these were vicious lies and distortions, a hoax?
DS: You know, I figured it out a bit at a time, a step at a time, slowly at first and then pretty intensely and quickly. It was a combination of experiential disenchantment, things I saw on the ground, which I’ll get into. And then also in response to that, I’ve always been a cerebral, like, just bookish kind of guy. The way I respond to trauma, the way I respond to disconcerting events, is that I want to read about it. I want to know everything. And so the combination of those two, I found–I learned all this history.
But what was interesting, what was relatively unique about my experiences, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, you know, when I was in Iraq I read 75 books about the Middle East. History, religion, et cetera–75 books, that’s a lot of books. But what was interesting is by day, I was sometimes literally engaged in firefights, killing and dying, or my soldiers dying. And by night, when everyone else was binge-watching, you know, the equivalent of Netflix, I was reading the history of Babylonia, and then eventually Saddam Hussein. And the same with my experience in Afghanistan. So I this really unique experience where I was living it and studying it at the same time. And so what I would read the night before would inform the way I viewed the next day. By the time I got to Afghanistan, I was so disenchanted with the Iraq War that I didn’t believe in the war on terror, quote unquote, anymore at all. I mean, I had read enough and experienced enough in Iraq to realize that both of these wars were unwinnable, probably ill-advised, and eventually, I came to believe, unethical. So when I went to Afghanistan I was almost a nihilist. I liked to call myself a mercenary nihilist, which upsets some of my fellow soldiers, but I’m only speaking for me. That’s how I felt. And the reason I felt that way is because here I am; I know better at this point, finally, from what I saw and what I read; I know better, I don’t believe in anything, but I’m still killing. I’m still the one who controls the radio, which is the most dangerous weapon in the American arsenal. I’m the one– the only one, for the most part–who can call an airstrike on almost anything I want, who was doing a lot of the killing. And so here I am, I don’t believe in it. And so as a professional soldier, for pay, and for health care for me and my children, I’m willing to continue doing this. And when you don’t believe in it, there is a certain level of nihilism and mercenary behavior involved in that. So this was unique. Again, it was the combination of what I saw and what I read.
RS: OK, so that’s Iraq. And today we want to focus back on Afghanistan, but you’re in Iraq, and you’re involved in the surge and the whole thing, and people are dying, and there’s mayhem. And you write a book about this, it’s very powerful, people can get it. But then you go to Afghanistan, which is what you thought you should have done in the first place, right? And where actually the attack happened. So we began with a bit of history of how Afghanistan got to be this crazy place. And let’s pick it up there. We, you know, in a very cynical way, the United States government–in the Carter administration, and it followed in the Reagan administration– was determined to provoke the Russians into doing something as stupid as we did in Vietnam. Right? Give them their own chaos, their madness. And we actually know that the U.S. was involved in Afghanistan militarily because Gates, our Secretary of Defense at that time in the Carter administration, has written a book about it and talked about it, revealed that secret. So again, fake news, the lie that somehow the Russians invaded–no, we were there first, we tricked them into it. They had a friendly government, we destabilized that government, and then the rest is history. So you go to Afghanistan when?
DS: So I–this is interesting, I mean, and important, I think. I get to Afghanistan in February of 2011 at the height of Obama’s surge. And you’re right, when I was in Iraq I turned against that war, but I was at least a little bit of the mind that Obama was, that perhaps Afghanistan was the one war we should be in. And there was a romantic side of me in the Iraq War that thought, I wish I was in Afghanistan, because at least that war is worth fighting. Of course, I found that not to be the case. And the reason I found that not to be the case is because in my year in Afghanistan–and I, we killed so many more people–no, no, when I get to Afghanistan, this was more of a real war, or at least what I envisioned a war to be in the movies. We had firefights every single day. Every single day, my base was attacked, and if we went on patrol. So this was a real war. We were killing. I was involved in much more killing in Afghanistan than I ever was in Iraq. What was interesting, though, is what I figured out is, who am I fighting? And it wasn’t al Qaeda, it was these Taliban farm boys. Now, here’s an interesting vignette that demonstrates all this. So I was there on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. So a Czech news crew, a Czech journalist source, got permission from our brigade to embed with the unit. And they asked if there were any New Yorkers in our brigade, and they found me. So for two days, I hosted these very, very intelligent Czech journalists, and they ended up writing an article on me. And then a follow-up to that, a Reuters journalist came, C. Bryson Hull, who’s actually a really good writer. And he came down for two days, and he did a story about me, and it got into Reuters and picked up by a lot of papers. And the crux of the story was him asking me if I thought that what I was doing had anything to do with 9/11. Now, clearly he had an opinion on that. But what he was not expecting was to find a like-minded captain willing to open his yap. And I did. And there are quotes in this article about where I described how, you know, we aren’t fighting al Qaeda, this is completely disconnected from 9/11, my uncles were in that, people I loved died in 9/11, but I don’t think I’m here for them. I described the Taliban as farm boys with guns. I even said, how can you hate that?
Well, when the Reuters journalist left, and the Czech journalist before him left, I got pulled on the carpet by my colonel, who was very displeased with my comments when he read them. He said that they were going to demoralize the troops, and all this. Now, he couldn’t punish me, because I hadn’t said anything that was against the regulations. But he let me know, as they do with the furtive pressure, he said, I just want you to know that the brigade commander–his boss, who is the one that gives me the final evaluation that determines my promotion–he said I just want you to know that Colonel Frank is not pleased with you. And this is the kind of pressure you get. So the point is that, yes, when I was in Afghanistan I had originally thought maybe that was the good war, agreeing with Obama. But when I got there and I realized that what I was fighting was illiterate kids who couldn’t find America on a map, I realized that what I was doing and what I was killing for had really nothing to do with 9/11 any longer, and it still doesn’t.
RS: So what did it have to do with?
DS: Well, I mean, there are a lot of reasons I think that we are in Afghanistan. Part of the reason we’re still there is a sunken-cost fallacy. You know, once you’ve lost soldiers, once you’ve been there a while, people start saying well, if we leave now then was it all a waste. Then there’s just the geopolitics of Eurasia, and the Great Game with Russia and China, and the mineral resources under Afghanistan. I mean, in a lot of ways, this whole thing was a farce. I mean, the notion that Afghanistan ever had anything to do with al Qaeda is almost ludicrous. Because if we took it so seriously to wipe out al Qaeda, then why in December of 2001–when bin Laden and the remnants of al Qaeda, the beaten remnants of al Qaeda are stuck in Tora Bora in the mountains–why does Donald Rumsfeld deny the request from the American generals on the ground for a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, our best light infantry, to form a screen line to block bin Laden and al Qaeda from getting into Pakistan? He denies that. He says, we don’t need lots of troops on the ground. We’re going to do it with a light footprint. The warlords–the Afghan warlords paid off by bags of money from the CIA–they’ll be the ones to do it. And of course, we know Osama bin Laden escapes on horseback into Pakistan, just as the generals on the ground have predicted. We did not ever really take it particularly seriously.
Which leaves me–I don’t have the answers to that. To me that’s a quandary. You know, and it was a quandary to me in the midst of the height of the Iraq War, when every once in a while a brave journalist–rarely, but a brave journalist would say, well, what about bin Laden? Is anyone talking about where he is? And is he dead, is he alive? And what was really extraordinary was the way that senior Bush officials at the time would just shake off that question, and say oh, it doesn’t really matter if he’ alive. Well, that’s confusing, because I thought he was the reason for the war. I will tell you this, about 2,400 American soldiers have died fighting in Afghanistan. I’ve done a little bit of research on this: a conservative estimate is that 2,300 out of 2,400 of those American soldiers killed were killed by the Taliban or their associated elements, and less than 100 were killed by anything even reasonably considered al Qaeda. And I think that’s instructive.
RS: So basically, al Qaeda had scooted out across the border to Pakistan, and yet this war continued. And as we said before, the longest war in American history–see, it’s hard for people to get their head wrapped around it. First of all, they don’t want to wrap their head around it, because it doesn’t matter to them. It’s some war, it could be a video game, it goes on. And then people like you who get caught up in it, well, that’s your career, and you’re going to get a pension, and so forth. So there’s something absolutely mindless, irresponsible–
RS: –about the whole enterprise, you know. And yet there’s carnage, there’s death, destruction. Now, you lost troops under your command, and you lost them at a time when you knew the war didn’t make any sense.
DS: It did a lot of emotional damage, quite frankly. I mean, I don’t want to make it about me. You know, a lot of people suffered a lot of things. But you know, it was not healthy for me. And I didn’t even realize the damage it was doing to me emotionally until I really got home and had a bit of a mental health collapse. You know, when you don’t believe in what you’re doing and yet, you know, a number of your soldiers die–and then of course kill themselves afterwards; I’ve been to a lot of suicide funerals of guys under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq–you know, it’s harder to stomach those losses. You know, it’s harder to be the guy–I was the guy who had to give the speech at the hasty memorial we would do in Afghanistan when someone was killed.
The Army films those memorials for the dead soldiers. You’ve seen them, right, with the bootsand the bayonet stuck in the ground. I’m the guy who gives the speech. I have to write a speech–by the way, that speech has to be cleared by your command to make sure it’s up to standard and not political and such. I was that guy–the mothers, they watch me say nice things about their sons.
One of the things that happened when I was in Afghanistan is I was in charge of about 100 to 130 guys, depending on the given day. Three died in combat, and thankfully, because of modern medicine, about 35 were wounded. We were a high-casualty unit in a really dangerous area. And a lot of those wounded were double and even one triple amputee, in my unit, because it was a horrible time. But you know, it struck me one day when an immigrant who had joined the Army to get his citizenship in my unit was killed. He, both his legs were blown off and he bled to death. I had to give his memorial speech. But he was a replacement that was sent to my unit at the last minute. I didn’t even know this kid. I knew nothing about him. And I had to write a speech about him, and I had to call his sergeants in to tell me about him. And it was one of the most demoralizing moments of my life. And I mean, that’s, I’m just trying to humanize it. Like, this is the cost. And you know, when bin Laden was killed, I was also in Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan, and I talked to my mother on the phone the next day, I was able to call her. And she was really excited that bin Laden–to show you the disconnect; her son was in Afghanistan, and she really did care–but she was excited that bin Laden was dead. And she asked me, I thought–I think a very instructive question. She said, Danny, she said, what does this mean for you? Is this good? Do you get to come home? And–and I laughed at her. But like a dark, unhappy, tragicomic laugh, and I kind of lectured her. And it was sad; I shouldn’t have done it. She didn’t know any better. And I was like, are you kidding me, mom? Like, this war isn’t–what I’m doing is not about Osama bin Laden. What I’m doing is not about al Qaeda. His death in Pakistan has nothing to do, and will affect nothing. And it didn’t–in fact, if anything, violence increased in the interim, and I don’t think that had anything to do with bin Laden.
RS: So you’re a historian–and we’re going to wrap this up soon. So you’re a historian, you’re a smart guy, you went to West Point, you ended up being an instructor at West Point. You’re going to be Dr. Danny Sjursen soon, you know, get a doctorate in history. You’ve written, you know, three important, four important books actually, your dissertation on race in Staten Island and so forth. And yet in this thing that we celebrate with singing the national anthem, and planes flying over, and a great feeling–honor the troops and thank you for your service, in your lifetime it’s been a hoax. A hoax. People died unnecessarily. We invented reasons for their dying, whether they were Afghan or Iraqi or Americans or anyone else. It’s–why doesn’t everybody go crazy? How do the big shots survive? How do the top generals? Do they know it’s nuts, or do they think you have to do it anyway, or it creates jobs and pensions and medals? What is it? What’s the secret to this madness?
DS: I wish that I had a complete understanding of that. But I have a few ideas. You’re right–we all, as the American people, were the victims of a great hoax, since September 11, 2001. I was more of a direct recipient of that hoax, whereas most of the students outside this window where we’re recording, you know, are very indirect; they don’t understand that they’re recipients of a hoax. They don’t pay attention to it; I lived it, that was just my experience. But you know, why does it continue, and why do people not pay attention to it? I mean, I really–I’m sorry, you know, we talked about this last night. The pornography, as you called it, of militarist adulation–whether it’s the flyovers or, you know, the military paying the NFL for those flyovers, and all the ceremonies–it’s really just a veneer that lauds over the reality, which is that these wars are only able to continue so long as we have an apathetic populace. And the way to maintain an apathetic populace is twofold. The minor way is not to increase their taxes; we pay historically low taxes, so we put it on the credit card; we’ll pay it later, maybe, to China. But the main way is that if we cut the American people–and this was Nixon’s gamble, and it worked; and it wasn’t just him. But if we cut the American people completely out of war, and we make it a professional duty, we make it something that the legionnaires do, the Praetorian Guard that I was a part of, then the war can continue indefinitely. And that’s why last night one student knew we had a peace deal in Afghanistan. That’s why if we pulled the students outside our window walking to class, this war doesn’t affect them. And the thing is, Bob, in finality, that was all by design. And that’s the cynicism of the whole thing.
RS: But then why do the people of power want to do it? You know, I mean, what’s in it for them? Is it the old thing of profit, the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of? Is it the sort of thing Chris Hedges has written about, that war defines our meaning? Gives us purpose, cohesion when nothing else does, a sense of virtue? I mean, this is a scene in a lunatic asylum. I mean, think about it, you know, really. An incredibly bright fellow like yourself, only 36 years old but wise beyond your years, and you were shanghaied into this whole mad theater.
And I keep thinking of Pat Tillman; I’ve done some writing about his case, and Kevin Tillman. And again, these are people who made sacrifice in their careers. He was a famous football player, and his brother was a baseball player, and they thought they were going to get the bad guys, and they would sacrifice. Like you, they came from families where people had sacrificed in the military. They go to Iraq, they don’t believe in it, and they finally go to Afghanistan, and they die from friendly fire, Pat does. And his brother is even lied to about it, and they try to turn him into a hero, distorting the whole record. And they get away with it. I mean, let’s not kid around here. We live in what is a self-proclaimed democracy, we have a free press, critical analysis, whistleblowers and everything. The fact is, you can lie pretty easily in this country, if you have power, about the most important things. You can just lie, lie, lie. No?
And you’re a historian. So, you know, let me just tap your brain here. In what way, really, were Iraq and Afghanistan different than most of the wars we’ve been in, this great democracy? Has that really been a check on the power of the military to do irrational wars? In what sense has it been?
DS: Well, you know, we’ve fought irrational wars before. I mean, the key ones that I would point to are like the Mexican-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Vietnam. But I think what is unique about this one is that it’s the first one fought with this uber-professionalized, I would call it prussianized, military that is by design divided from the American people. But what’s interesting that you mentioned is the lack of accountability. No one is punished for failure, whether they’re generals or civilian officials. If you’re a general who loses a war, you get a teaching position at USC. If you’e a general who loses two wars, and gives classified–
RS: You’re talking about General Petraeus.
DS: Right, and gives classified information to your mistress, right? Then you get a seat on a board of a defense contractor, where he currently works, and you get a job at USC. And he’s just one example. And if you’re a civilian official who loses a war, or is tied up in a torture scandal, then you get a paid speaking gig at MSNBC, the supposed liberal network. There is no accountability. And there was–
RS: Who is that you’re referring to?
DS: Oh, I’m referring to John Brennan, I’m referring to any number of the generals, right, like Hayden. I mean, these are Bush and Obama level guys who have been–they’re born-again, they’re born-again heroes from the mainstream left because they’re anti-Trump. And that’s all you have to be. But I mean, there really is no accountability. And when I was in Iraq in 2007, a lieutenant colonel named Paul Yingling had the temerity to write an article in the Armed Forces Journal, the official journal of the U.S. military. And he called it a failure of generalship. And it was an article that really tore apart the leaders of the war, the ones who brought us there–the military leaders of the war who brought us there and then failed and didnt understand counterinsurgency, didn’t understand Iraq. And his final line was that as–and this is about the lack of accountability–he said, as it stands today, in Iraq, where he was a battalion commander, a soldier, a private, the lowest-ranking soldier who loses his rifle stands to be punished far more than a general who loses a war. Now, where is Paul Yingling today? He did not make general, and he teaches high school history. And that tells you how we value dissent.
RS: So really–and you’ve made this analogy with Rome; maybe it’s an overused analogy–but you know, we’re in the middle of an election, and no one will refer to the fact that we are an empire. We’re not a republic. And we have no control, basically, over what is done in our name in terms of war. We don’t even, most Americans don’t even know where these wars are, they can’t find them on a map. There’s no accountability, because we have the prussianized army, so ordinary people don’t have to make a sacrifice for it. And then we have this patriotism that you’ve just written a whole book about. And why did you write a book about patriotism? What is that, is that the–is that the pornographic novel that accompanies forever and unneeded wars? Is that the ring of patriotism that we needed in our lives? Or is it the profit motive? What is it?
DS: You know, I’ve come to believe that patriotism is a fraud that has been placed upon the American people to convince them that supporting the troops and supporting the war are one and the same. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I wanted to deal with this question of whether patriotism is inherently toxic and should be done away with–and I am of one mind that that’s the case. Or does patriotism need to be reframed in a more complex and nuanced way that looks at the history of our dissenters, whether they be Martin Luther King or Eugene Debs, or any of these great dissenters who fought against empire and in the name of our aspirational values.
In the end in the book, I come to the conclusion, you know, cautiously, that we can and should reframe patriotism. Because as it’s currently used, what I call pageantry patriotism–that’s the grotesque pornography of idolizing militarism, you know, idolizing the military–it’s the situation where the 50-yard line at every game is full of killers, right? They’re not necessarily bad people, but we glorify our killers. But you will not see a nurse, you will not see a social worker, right, or a teacher in a low-income neighborhood on that field. And I think that that is an indictment of a society.
And that version of patriotism is pornography. It is war porn. And it really is the rot of our republic. And actually, the truth is, whether Americans want to admit it or not–and now is probably not the time for me to make an argument of why–we’re an empire. We fell to the curse of Rome that our founders were worried about. We’ve been an empire for a long, long time. And that’s what my history book’s about. This veneer of patriotism–it’s just a way to sell it to the people or to buy their apathy.
RS: But what is it, finally? Because you’ve been in war, you’ve seen people die, you’ve killed people. What keeps it going? Why aren’t there more dissenters? Is it the pensions, is it the honor, is it fear of speaking out? You’re wearing a shirt now, Iraq Veterans Against the War– why aren’t there more Iraq veterans and Afghan veterans? There were more about Vietnam, but that was a drafted army of people who didn’t want to go in the first place, many of them. But do we have a culture now of irresponsibility? That we could–you know, with drones and everything, have we turned war into a video game?
DS: Oh, we certainly have turned it into a video game, which I’ll get to. I mean, look, the elephant in the room is the draft, and I think we’ve covered it. But I think there are three reasons why more people don’t speak out. To give you an idea of how few people speak out, Iraq Veterans Against the War has maybe a few hundred card-carrying members. I go to the convention every year; between 40 and 60 people show up, we are very small, I know everyone by their first name. As for the public dissenters like me, who write or speak about this, I can count them on both hands. I know all of them personally, and I have every one of their phone numbers in my phone. Which is scary. That’s how small we are.
RS: Well, I’m going to end on that, but it is a depressing note. Because we hear about different whistleblowers–you’re a whistleblower, because you started writing about the folly of these wars while you were still active duty. You’ve only been out for, what, about a year now?
DS: Yeah, I’ve been out for a year and 21 days. And I wrote for you, Bob, as well as other people for two years before I left the military.
RS: So this is Major Danny Sjursen, retired, and writing books and giving speeches. And the books really are of great substance; it’s not just that, yes, I saw a war, and it’s hell and I’m going to denounce it. It’s really trying to explain who we are, you know, and what it’s all about, and what are the uses of patriotism and jingoism. And it’s a worldwide story; we’re not the first people to do it, we just do it and more effectively conceal what it’s about, because we’re a democracy; we have more power than any country. That’s what everybody forgets, we’re the top of the most powerful military machine the world has ever even imagined. And getting more so all the time; we’re going to extend it to space, we’re refining nuclear weapons and so forth. Then great exercise in waste, and so forth.
But you just hit something. Why are there only 40, 60 people who show up at a convention of veterans against the war, when there are so many who know it’s folly? Why do we have so few whistleblowers? You think of an Edward Snowden; Daniel Ellsberg, who himself was in the Marines and then saw Vietnam and helped write the Pentagon Papers, and then turned against it and risked 130 years in jail by letting us read the Pentagon Papers, OK. But there was only one Daniel Ellsberg; another one didn’t come along for 20 years or something. You got Bill Binney, Thomas Drake, you can name them. And you know, why are they so few? I know you’ve thought about this question. I mean, why–you know, you’re a regular guy from Staten Island, you’re–you look like a boxer, strong, big muscles, you come from a neighborhood where it was all venerated and–right? And why are there so few whistleblowers?
DS: Well, I do think there are three main reasons, briefly, very briefly. You know, OK, first of all there’s the career aspect of the military. You want to get promoted, you want to get to the higher rank. Speaking out while on active duty is very dangerous. Even if they don’t overtly punish you, they can covertly punish you; you don’t get the next promotion as quickly, you don’t get the duty station you want. The second reason has to do with the fear of loss of benefits. Now, we are a mercenary force. We are a Praetorian Guard. We are separate from the civilians. We are in an economy, the gig economy, where almost no one has a pension, and your students are scared to death about what’s going to happen when they graduate. Well, I wasn’t. I mean, my paycheck came in–every single day of my life since I was 18 years old, I knew exactly when my money was coming every two weeks, because we get paid a small amount at West Point. So you don’t want to lose your socialized medicine and your health care and your benefits for your kids.
And I think the third reason–and this is important–is that when you enter an organization that’s a big fraternity, like the military, suddenly all of your friends are military. Your whole social circle. You spend your holidays with other guys in the military. The social pressure and ostracization, the social pariah status which I eventually suffered to some extent, it’s crippling. And I think that the combination of those three, all of which is wrapped around this professional military, does a lot to suppress dissent, at the lowest level and then for the generals, because they go on and get jobs in the military-industrial complex and make a million dollars if they keep their mouth shut; they have their own pressure. So I was worried about my $80,000 a year and then my $30,000 a year pension; they’re worried about their $200,000 a year pensions, and their potential seven-figure salaries upon leaving the military through the revolving door to the defense industry. So we have the same motivations, just at a different scale.
RS: So let me end on a very personal note. In some sense, I put your life at risk. Because when I first encountered you and your writing, and you already had written your book about Iraq, and I started publishing you on Truthdig, you were still active duty. I mean, you could have easily– something could have happened to your Jeep or something, right? I mean, you were still out there. So take me into the mind of the whistleblower. Why did you feel the need to speak up?
DS: Well, you’re right. I mean, I wrote for you for two years; I wrote publicly for almost three years on active duty. I was living a double life. It was schizophrenic, it was dangerous, it was bad for my mental health. So why did I speak up? I wonder that sometimes, you know. I get either adulation–positive stuff like you’re to some extent giving me, which I appreciate–or I get hate. I don’t get a lot in the middle. But I’m more in the middle. I question my own motives. I don’t think I’m some sort of hero. I don’t know exactly why I decided to speak out. What I do know is that I got too close to my soldiers, I got too emotionally invested in them, I got too emotionally invested in the Iraqi and then the Afghan people, and my heart was broken, Bob. My heart was broken in those wars.
And I guess my own mental health was so severely affected that I don’t think I had a choice. Like, I don’t even know that I made a conscious decision. I wasn’t trying to be a hero whistleblower. I didn’t even think–I did not think of Daniel Ellsberg when I started doing what I did. I was doing it out of some–honestly I was drawn to it by forces I can’t understand. I was so broken inside that it would have been obscene for me not to speak. And I don’t say that with the self-righteousness that my friends, my best friends in the world didn’t speak out. And so this is not me judging them, because I’m going to see one of them tonight and one of them tomorrow. But they didn’t.
And so I’m not saying this because I’m better; I’m saying that something inside of me, something about the way I was raised, probably more something about the way that I was born and what was inside me, it would have been largely obscene for me. After naming my first son after three kids that died under my command, one of whom I loved dearly, it would have been obscene for me to keep my mouth shut, and I couldn’t. And I didn’t even think it through. I really didn’t. I didn’t think through the consequences. Maybe I should have, but I never did.
RS: Well, it’s an absolutely important, critical question. Because we think we live in a society that is designed to encourage you to challenge power. We have a sense of limited government, we have separation of powers, you have First Amendment freedoms and others, you know. And yet–and I’m not just talking about people who are on active duty–people don’t speak out in general, you know. They go along.
Now, one of the indictments we made of other societies–the main indictment, really–is when people went along. And usually in those societies, whether it was the old Soviet Union, whether it was Nazi Germany, or whether it’s Egypt today that’s run by the generals, or Saudi Arabia, or whatever. You know, these people don’t have the protection of a bill of rights, and they don’t have a court system that is relatively open. And I was thinking about it in a very personal sense. I remember the first time I went to Germany as a young person to find my father’s relatives there. And I found my uncle who had been in the German army and actually been wounded in the fighting over Stalingrad. And this is a town that my half-brother had actually, the area he had bombed in the U.S. Air Force. And I remember all the time thinking of a phrase from Hannah Arendt, a great writer about the whole German fascist experience, “the banality of evil.” And, you know, my [uncle] was a great guy. And, you know, not a mean bone in his body, a farm boy. And he had never even met a Jewish person. I happened to have a Jewish mother, I consider myself Jewish. You know, he even identified me that way–oh, you’re not your brother, you’re the Juden, the Jewish guy. And yet, the savagery of Germany–but people who look like us, you know, a culture that’s very similar–and the indictment that came down over Nuremberg, the indictment that came down was you can’t be the good German. You had an obligation to go against those orders, you had an obligation to challenge it, right. And if you were an officer, if you were high up and you witnessed these, basically, crimes–because they’re based on lies, and people getting killed–you had an obligation to speak up. And yet, we don’t apply it to ourselves. I mean, why? How? You’re the historian. This is my last question to you. What wisdom have you gotten–you’ve studied all these wars, all these historical periods. And you’ve recorded savagery; you’ve told me about the genocide committed against Native Americans, you’ve told me about the folly of different wars. You’re an expert on this, and yet you’re writing within a democratic society, a society of–what is, what is the story here?
DS: Well, you know, this is going to open me up to a lot of critique, but I have to say it anyway. Those soldiers on the football fields that we see every Sunday are the good Germans. And I was one of them, that Hannah Arendt spoke of. We are the foot soldiers for empire. And the reality is, every day that we don’t speak out–and for 14 years, I didn’t have the courage to, right. So in some ways, I consider what I’m doing right now my lapsed Catholic penance. You know, that’s the truth of the matter. We went along to get along, and in the process, we were guilty.
Now here’s what I think, in my final point–you asked, well, what is it about our society, we’re supposedly a democracy. I happen to believe, and this is the cynical side of me, but I think that my study of history proves it. We never believed those things we said at the end of the Second World War, those principles about war crimes at Nuremberg. The only difference between us and the Germans when it comes to the principles we laid down is that we were the winners. We were the winners. So we don’t apply those Nuremberg principles of, hey, you have to speak out against aggression and lies and militarism in the world–we don’t apply that to our soldiers or our generals. And we won’t until we’re not the prevalent power in the world.
And my final point, McNamara, who was the secretary defense under Kennedy, who was an architect of the Vietnam War, back in the day when he was a young man, was a statistician who worked in the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific, under a guy named “bombs away”; Curtis LeMay, a general who bombed the heck out of Japanese cities, and torched and killed hundreds of thousands. And you know, McNamara’s job was to make those bombings efficient, and by “efficient”; I mean kill as many people as possible. Do the math. And one day–McNamara recounted this later in his life–he said, LeMay turned to me and he was just a junior officer, but this general turned to him and said, you know something, Bob? He says, if we lose this war, they’d probably try me and you as war criminals. And then he paused and he said–LeMay did– and he said, and they’d probably be right to do it. And that’s how I feel about what we’ve done in these wars. And it’s a crime that most of us either haven’t spoken out at all, or in my case, waited far too long.
RS: But just to help you here not be attacked, you have to–we were attacked on 9/11. That’s how we began this interview. Bad things were done to us. There are bad actors out there. That’s what somebody’s going to say to this. How can you compare us to Germany, they’re going to say. And yet–and yet, what is the answer?
DS: Well, I don’t for a second think that American crimes in the war on terror are equal, or of the scale of the mechanization of, you know, genocide that the Germans, you know, conducted. And so I don’t want to draw that as an exact analogy, what I’m talking about is the jus ad bellum, right, to use the Latin: the justice of the war. We have engaged in wars of choice, wars of aggression, preventative wars, that by the Nuremberg principles, by the principles laid down after World War II, are inherently illegal under international law. And so thereby, by fighting them, we do become in a sense the good Germans. And that doesn’t mean we’re Nazis. It means that we are willing parties, professional willing parties for money, or for belief; a lot of us believed in what we were told. But regardless, we are party to these wars. And I think we have to take responsibility. That’s the first step to recovery.
RS: And you can’t just go along to get along. So, OK, Major Danny Sjursen, 18 years in the military, West Point graduate, West Point instructor. Author of four really important books, one on patriotism coming out soon, and one that’s already come out, The Ghost Riders of Baghdad, that is available. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producer here at the University of Southern California is Sebastian Grubaugh. We’re at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism here. Our person who writes up these shows is Natasha, Hakimi Zapata [omission] at Truthdig, the foreign editor who writes up these shows. And Joshua Scheer is the producer and organizer of this whole thing for Scheer Intelligence. See you next week with another edition. [omission 58:43 – 1:01:26]