Back when I still wore the uniform of a U.S. Army officer, and well before many of my former brothers in arms labeled me a traitor, I taught freshman (“plebe”) history at West Point. I loved asking my cadets provocative questions, the sort of queries they never heard in high school Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. Consider just one. At the end of the class on World War II, I always asked: “What is the moral difference between flying three planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon—killing 3,000 civilians—and using hundreds of U.S. planes to firebomb Tokyo on March 9, 1945—killing some 90,000 civilians?” Suffice it to say that most cadets didn’t like this question at all.

Nevertheless, let’s break that debate query down. The standard retorts of cadets ran something like this: “Well, Japan attacked us first,” or “It’s different—the U.S. had officially declared war on Japan!” Fair points, both. Still, an honest analysis complicates the standard American apologetics. Osama bin Laden and company would argue that actually, the U.S. had attacked (the Muslim world) first. After all, U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq caused the death of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children from 1991 to 2003. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted as much on camera, callously declaring that “we think the price is worth it.” Indeed, bin Laden pointed to the Iraqi sanctions regime as one of his three core motives for attacking the U.S. homeland. Furthermore, I’d remind my cadets, bin Laden did publicly declare jihad on America on Aug. 23, 1996, more than five years before the 9/11 attacks.

Now, I’m no fan of al-Qaida or bin Laden, or of any attacker of civilians. I grew up in a Staten Island neighborhood in New York where the avenues are named for dead firemen. I took 9/11 personally. Still, intellectual honesty demands a fair analysis of complex ethical issues in warfare—my profession of choice. Critical thinkers must be able to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts in their heads at the same time; in this case, that the 9/11 attacks were criminal and that American firebombings of Japanese women and children were lawless. One of the architects of that deliberate bombing—former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—has admitted as much.

I got to thinking about Americans’ peculiar definitions of terrorism recently when President Trump took an unprecedented step and designated a military unit of a sovereign nation—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—as a foreign terrorist organization. In another bit of (to me, comical) theater, Iran quickly responded by labeling U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)—the headquarters commanding all U.S. troops in the Greater Middle East—as terrorist. One can’t help but wonder if Iran has a point! Either way, it seems that a comparison of the two military commands is in order.

The IRGC certainly dabbles in proxy wars and meddles in the region (so does Uncle Sam, by the way). It provides limited aid to the Houthi side in the Yemeni Civil War and, in the past, lent support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The latter two groups have, though not recently, engaged in suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Furthermore, from 2004 to 2011, the IRGC aided Iraqi Shiite militias with the homemade bomb expertise these groups later applied to kill some 600 American troops. None of this activity is particularly appealing to a former U.S. military officer.

Then again, American troops were, at the time, militarily occupying Iraq in violation of the spirit of a slew of international strictures and, soon after the conquest of Iraq, senior U.S. policymakers reportedly seriously considered regime change in Iran—joking that “boys go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran!” Washington, then, might not act so different from Tehran if Iran had just conquered Mexico and then threatened to overthrow the U.S. government. What’s more, though Tehran exerts influence in its own region, the “terrorist” label seems unwarranted. After all, the IRGC has never attacked the U.S. homeland; in fact, no Iranian on a visa has ever committed an act of terrorism in America, and no citizen of Iran has struck on U.S. soil since at least 1975.

In the interest of fairness, let us examine just a few of the recent CENTCOM-directed or -enabled actions that an objective observer might label “terrorist.” Under Donald Trump’s relaxed bombing standards, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have increased fivefold, and civilian deaths from those strikes rose 87% between 2017 and 2018 alone, to 463. Furthermore, since the regional anti-Islamic State bombing campaign began in 2014, the U.S. military admits to 1,139 civilians killed—though human rights organizations estimate the true number is likely between 7,000 and 16,000 deaths. Purposeful or not, those many thousands of people are still dead. After all, the Irish Republican Army didn’t mean to kill civilians in Britain or Northern Ireland, but back then, the U.S. State Department still labeled them terrorists when they inevitably did!

What’s more, though CENTCOM may not drop the bombs, the U.S. provides much of the intelligence, munitions and Air Force in-flight refueling that enables the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen. The sordid scorecard for that little war reads as follows: tens of thousands of civilians killed by Saudi airstrikes, 85,000 children starved to death as a result of the Saudi blockade, and the outbreak of the worst cholera outbreak in world history. And, lest we forget, Saudi Arabia could not have pulled this off quite as deftly without ample CENTCOM support!

Turn the clock back a bit farther and matters look worse. The CENTCOM-directed invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 unleashed chaos, violence, looting and, eventually, civil war. As a result, at least 183,000 civilians were ultimately killed. According to the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power (read: the U.S.) has legal responsibility for local security, safety and basic services in the aftermath of war. At that, CENTCOM undoubtedly failed. So is Tehran right? Is CENTCOM a terrorist organization? Maybe, maybe not—but Iran does have a point.

Comparisons aside, the very counterproductivity of the “foreign terrorist organization” announcement is staggering. This unnecessary—and purely symbolic—designation will only serve to rally Iranian moderates and liberals around their flag and the IRGC that those citizens largely detest. It seems the U.S. government will never learn. Escalation begets escalation; violence begets violence.

Washington is playing a dangerous game in the Persian Gulf. War with Iran is both unnecessary and ill-advised. But war is exactly what this administration’s obsessive Iranophobes—national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have long desired. The whole mess raises ever more questions as to whether Trump has any coherent foreign policy. One minute he tweets his plans to de-escalate in Syria and Afghanistan; the next he’s threatening war with Iran and even Venezuela! Nevertheless, Trump’s latest symbolic escalation may just usher in the war he, or at least his key advisers—including Assistant President of the United States, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—apparently want. If war does break out, it’s unclear which side will more aptly carry the title “terrorist.”

Here again, a caveat seems necessary. I’m no fan of the IRGC or their elite Quds Force. The explosively formed penetrator (EFP) bombs that the Quds Force allegedly provided to Iraq’s Mahdi Army affected my life personally. In Baghdad, on the night of Jan. 25, 2007, an EFP turned my platoon’s lead Humvee into Swiss cheese, killing two of my soldiers, including a dear friend—my oldest son’s namesake, Sgt. Alexander Fuller. God, how I used to hate those bombs and that militia.

Still, time has passed and deeper reflection ensued. My platoon was part of an occupation force; nationalist resistance was understandable. I’ll never laud the Mahdi Army or their IRGC backers. But my own command, CENTCOM, was and is far from innocent.

In sum, as we compare the two military organizations, one must conclude, ultimately, that CENTCOM is at least as terrorist as the IRGC. Maybe more.

No doubt many critics will label this assessment “treasonous.” I call it “ethically consistent.”

Let history be the judge.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

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