Where Are Brave Military Voices Against Forever War?

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Above photo: Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner is arrested by U.S. Capitol Police during a 2007 protest. Credit:/CreativeCommons/DannyHammontree.

Today my peers are silent.

But they’ve been taught the way to do it

Like Christian soldiers; not with haste

And shuddering groans; but passing through it

With due regard for decent taste

 —Siegfried SassoonHow to Die (1918)

It is my favorite moment. Of World War I, that is. The one that stays with me.

Christmas, 1914: Nearly a million men are already dead, and the war is barely four months old. Suddenly, and ultimately in unison, the opposing German and British troops begin singing Christmas carols. At first light, German troops emerge unarmed from their trenches, and walk out into “no-man’s land.” Despite fearing a ruse, the Brits eventually joined their sworn enemies in the churned earth between the trench lines. Carols were sung, gifts of cigarettes exchanged—one man even brought out a decorative tree. It only happened once. Though the bloody, senseless war raged across three more Christmases, the officers on each side quashed future attempts at a holiday truce. And yet, for that brief moment, in the ugliest of circumstances, the common humanity of Brits and Germans triumphed. It must have been beautiful.

Ultimately, nearly ten million men would die in battle. For all that, little was settled. It rarely is.  The ruling classes still ruled, the profiteers profited, and Europe went to war again not twenty years later. So it went, and so it goes.

Nonetheless, World War I boasted countless skeptics and anti-war activists both in and out of uniform. Their poetry and prose was dark, but oh was it ever powerful. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen from the Brits; Erich Maria Remarque for the stoic Germans; and our own Ernest Hemingway. A lost generation, which sacrificed so much more than youth: their innocence. They call to us, these long dead dissenters, from the grave.

They might ask: Where are today’s skeptical veterans? Tragically, silence is our only ready response.

For all the celebration (and mythologizing) over World War II, at least we had Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller to burst our comfortable, patriotic bubble. And, though it likely lost him the presidency, Senator John Kerry (and his Vietnam Vets against the War mates) showed the courage to testify to the truth in the Winter Soldier Hearings.It was not always so in America. During the brutal Seminole Indian Wars, 17 percent of army officers resigned in disgust rather than continue burning villages and hunting natives down like dogs in Florida’s Everglades’ swamps. Mark Twain’s cheeky prose demolished the Philippine-American colonial war at the turn of the century (some 30 years after he briefly served in the Missouri state militia during the Civil War). Hemingway, laid the truth bare after being wounded in the First Great War while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver. And Major General Smedley Butler—two-time Medal of Honor recipient though he was—emerged from the Caribbean “Banana Wars” to admit he’d been naught but a “high class muscle man for Big Business,” a “gangster for capitalism.”

Today, despite a few brave attempts, we are treated to nothing of the sort. Why, you ask?

To begin with, most of the above mentioned wars were fought by draftees, militiamen, and short-term volunteers: in other words, citizen-soldiers. Even now, the identity of “citizen-soldier” ought to emphasize the former term: citizen. It doesn’t. Now, as we veterans are constantly reminded, we are warriorsProfessionals. Hail Sparta!

In 2017, it’s near impossible to remember that today’s professional, volunteer army is less than half a century old, a product of epic failure in Vietnam. Most of America’s Founding Fathers, after all, scorned standing armies and favored a body of august, able citizen-soldiers. Something more akin to our National Guard. Deploy these men to faraway lands, so the thinking went, and each town would lose its blacksmith, carpenter, and cobbler too. Only vital interests warranted such sacrifice. Alas, it is no longer so.

In truth, the “citizen-soldier” is dead, replaced—to the sound of cheers—by self-righteous subalterns hiding beneath the sly veil of that ubiquitous corporate idiom: professionalism.  Discipline, motivation, teamwork—these are all sleek, bureaucratic terms certain to mold terrific middle managers, but they remain morally bare. And, ultimately, futile.

So today, my peers are silent. Professional officers are volunteers; dissenters are seen as little more than petulant whiners, or oddball nuts. It is hard to know why, exactly, but the increasing cognitive and spatial distance of contemporary soldiers from society at large seems a likely culprit. Combine that with the Republican Party’s veritable monopoly on the political loyalties of the officer corps and you have yourself a lethal combination.

Only don’t rule out cowardice. Who isn’t fearful for their career, income, and family stability? It is only natural.  After all, this business—despite protestations to the contrary—does not tend to value intellectualism or creative thinking. Trust me. Besides, in this struggling transitory economy, the military “welfare state” is a tempting option for America’s declining middle class. Ironic, isn’t it, that the heavily conservative officer corps loves their socialized medicine and guaranteed pensions?

Under the circumstances, perhaps silence is understandable. But it is also complicity.

By now, the wars are lost, if ever they were winnable. Iraq will fracture, Syria collapse, and Afghanistan wallow in perpetual chaos. It will be so. The people will forget. Our professional, corporate regiments will, undoubtedly, add banners to their battle flags—sober reminders of a job well done in yet another lost cause. Soldiers will toast to lost comrades, add verses to their ballads, and precious few will ask why.

Perhaps a good officer suppresses such doubt, maintains a stoic, if dour, dignity, and silently soldiers on. As for me, I am not made of such stuff, and more’s the pity. I buried seven men in the fields of the Forever War, casualties of combat and the muted sufferings of suicide.

Their banal sacrifice demands explanation. They deserve as much.

For those lonely few, we who publicly dissent, the audience is scant, interest meagre, and our existence: solitary.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wrote a memoir, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.)

*** This article has been edited to reflect Mark Twain’s brief stint in the Missouri state militia, not the regular Confederate army; and the fact that Ernest Hemingway served the Red Cross during World War I.

  • DakotaMark

    Among my greatest regrets is my vote to end the draft soon after I was honorably discharged from the army in 1970. Draftees who served in Vietnam (I didn’t) were a major influence on ending that disastrous and costly war. Unfortunately, the ramifications of ending the draft did not occur to me back then.

    The Military Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell address has become a reality. Although the USA hasn’t won a war since WWII ended, our defense budget continues to soar while our nation’s infrastructure crumbles. If draftees had been forced to fight in those wars, their protests would have quickly put an end to them. While I wholeheartedly respect and applaud the volunteers who serve in
    our military, they are less likely to voice their opposition to our
    endless wars.

    Until we recognize that dropping bombs on innocent civilians and hospitals, described euphemistically by our policy makers as ‘Collateral Damage’, creates more enemies than dropping food and medical supplies. Our endless wars are what continues to inspire many people in the lands we bomb and elsewhere to join terrorist movements.

    We need to reestablish the draft so that a wider spectrum of our citizens become involved and that their protests will be voiced, heard, and heeded. When the wars end, infrastructure repair jobs will employ more Americans than we’ve seen in decades.

  • Contrary to the self-congratulatory self-deception mandated by the Big Lie of “our democracy,” the ending of the USian military draft had nothing whatsoever to do with public opposition to the Empire’s wars of economic aggression.

    “Ending the draft” was simply the deceptive cover our overlords cunningly fabricated from the era’s circumstances. In reality it was nothing more than a logical next-step in Capitalism’s inevitable transformation into fascism. To those of us who knew what to look for (i.e., those of us who are Marxists), the metamorphosis to fascism was already obvious in our domestic politics, especially its decade of political murders.

    Meanwhile the One Percent and their Ruling Class vassals — the professionals and executives who whore for our Capitalist masters — had suddenly remembered a lesson taught all oppressors by the Russian Revolution. They stopped the draft because they recognized it was training their overthrow, in this case a new USian revolution, perhaps even an USian Red Army.

    Thus our overlords acted on the one never-disproved and therefore absolutely certain lesson of our species’ history — that militarily untrained civilians cannot ever defeat a professional army.* (Think Spartacus, Boudicca, Red Cloud, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr,, Victor Jara etc..)

    The One Percenters and their vassals also recognized — again as proven by history — the soldiers of a professional army will always unquestionably obey orders to massacre or torture civilians. Nor will professional soldiers ever do as the Tsar’s draftees did in the February revolution — turn about and shoot the officers giving such orders.

    Thus too — probably for the first time in our species’ history (since never has there been a population methodically conditioned to the depth of aggressively submissive ignorance that defines the USian mentality) — was a premeditated act of tyrannical viciousness made to appear as a result of democratic process. Indeed it is a tactic — utterly irresistible when employed against such a hopelessly disempowered Moron Nation — that has since become a core mechanism in Capitalism’s strategy of total oppression. Hence “change we can believe in” or the equally brazen Big Lie of the Democratic (sic) Party’s sudden alliance with those of us who would overthrow the genocidal oxymoron of health “care” as a privilege of wealth and replace it with healthcare as a human right.