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Unlearning War

The 1917 "I Want You" U.S. Army recruitment poster by James Montgomery Flagg. (Library of Congress / Wikimedia)

I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing; it had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.
—Frederick Douglass

I’ve lived a soldier’s life. Moved seven times in 11 years. Fought two wars. Lost near a dozen soldiers in one way or another. And, well, lost faith in near everything I believed when it all began at the tender age of 17. In that time, I’ve sought to balance soldiering and scholarship. Perhaps that was my mistake.

It’s almost over now. I’ll leave that life soon enough, some 16 years, seven months, and 19 days since it all began at West Point, 50 miles up the river from New York City.

New Yorkers, of course, hardly know—or care—that the nation’s military academy exists so near their global metropolis. They, especially the city’s resurgent elites, inhabit a wholly different universe from the volunteer, professional soldiers who train, fight and die in their name. To take the 45-minute ride northbound on the commuter rail along the Hudson is to traverse from one dimension to another, to a rather strange, martial world. The system is designed that way. Military men and women exist apart from the society they serve. They are a new, often familial warrior caste. Praetorians of the 21st century.

There’s scant space for dissension in this closed, echoing realm of enthusiastic volunteers. Politicians order, warriors comply, the cycle continues. Only where has it gotten us—as an army, or, as a nation?

U.S. troops are now in 70 percent of the world’s countries and engaged in active conflict—what we used to call war—in, by even a modest count, some seven countries. In 2017-18, we’ve killed and been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Niger and Pakistan. At least for starters.

Chalk up the first three as outright, though ongoing, defeats or stalemates. The other four are deadlocked, and, in the case of Pakistan, slipping ever further from American influence. When a society wages war on a tactic—terrorism—don’t expect decisive outcomes or victory parades (though our current president sure wants one). No; America—and Americans—have both signed up for eternal quagmire, and its beloved warriors (and their countless victims) will foot the bill.

I’ve been just another nobody along for the ride. And what a long, strange trip it’s been. A few hundred books, thousands of articles and too many dogma-altering experiences later, and this veteran doubts any of it was, or is, worth the cost. Unfortunately, one can’t really go back and unlearn it all. Though sometimes, truthfully, I wish I could. When it comes to one’s emotional health, perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

***
Is broad and deep education a blessing or a curse for a soldier on the sharp end of America’s foreign wars? I carried Sartre and Camus in my rucksack through Kandahar province in Afghanistan and left more confused and melancholy than I’d arrived. What I’ve come to know, or believe, is all too disturbing. At times, I envy those among my peers and among the populace that neither know nor care about these inconvenient facts:

● That the war in Iraq was built on lies and waged without caution. That American arrogance fractured a fragile society and unleashed a sectarian civil war that’s proved impossible to bottle back up. That the tortured bodies we found, and some that we made, were the refuse of obtuse American fantasies about armed democracy promotion.

● That all my poor boys really accomplished in Afghanistan was to secure one square kilometer of land for one short year. That despite the best Petraeus-speak and can-do military rhetoric, we enduringly protected exactly zero Afghans. That when the smoke cleared, the only things my troops lastingly left behind were three American lives and 11 American limbs. How I wish I could unlearn that all that effort, fear and violence was for nothing, and that seeking to impose a foreign-backed centralized regime in rural Afghanistan has almost no historical track record of success. Just ask the Russians—or the British.

● That military actions and the U.S. gospel of hyper-interventionism doesn’t, it turns out, stifle terrorism. That ultimately, foreign armies, by their very nature, generate unrest. That American deployments from West Africa to South Asia increased rather than stifled terror acts and terror groups across the region.

● That the empire, always, by its very nature, ultimately comes home as our militarized domestic police patrol their beats like occupied territory. That we’ve learned to live with mass incarceration and mass shootings—things that only happen here—as a matter of course. That the real terrorism is on our streets, in our schools and lurking among us. That we can’t lay the blame on immigrants, Muslims or any “other.” That guns, violence and slaughter are as American as apple pie.

That many of America’s purported allies (like the Saudis) are themselves illiberal monsters and our lofty rhetoric rings hollow to the Yemeni children we’re complicit in killing, through bombs, disease and famine.

That ultimately, violence begets violence, and when all is said and done, twice as many American soldiers will have died these last 16 years than the number of citizens who perished on 9/11. That, of course, exponentially more foreign civilians died at our military’s hands, under their bombs or on account of instability the U.S. unleashed, than all American victims of terrorism in all of our country’s brief history.

How I wish, sometimes, that I didn’t know, or believe, all of that.

***
I’ve come a long way in my journey from faith to doubt and find myself now an apostate resident in the military monastery. There’s temptation to fantasize, to consider the counterfactual, and to wonder if one were better off not knowing the futility of the modern soldier’s life.

The faithful have it all backward. Doubt is hard. Belief is comforting, easier, less complicated. On the hard days I envy the true believers. And, trust me, they’re still out there, filling the ranks—from green lieutenants to grizzled generals.

How I miss the simplicity and serenity of blind patriotism and jingoistic nationalism.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave, who no doubt suffered far more than any dissenting soldier, lamented that his newfound learning had not presented a remedy for his wretched condition. Nor, I fear, has my own exacting education imparted any easy answers.

The only remedy for a life largely misspent, so far as I can tell, is truth. And it is that I shall seek to impart about my wars, and about a generation’s wars, for as long (or briefly) as I live. Still, I wonder, is anyone listening?

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

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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