Truth and Reconciliation: Veteran Accountability in a Time of Pandemic

Americans treasure their veterans; or so it seems. Every solitary soldier’s life matters, or is at least accounted for. Here the exactitude of the military’s casualty statistics tells the story. Such catalogues reflect more than a simple Pentagon penchant for lists – they are imbued with meaning, a sense of valuing American troops. Nothing of the sort applies to the real – or at least far more numerous – victims of Washington’s countless, and continuing wars. The suffering and costs for the mostly brown and black local victims – opponents and civilians – don’t much register here in the United States.

Once again, the lists – or lack thereof – are illustrative. Yet, while altering the victim-consciousness of U.S. political leaders might be too much to expect, combat veterans do know the cost in local blood and torment, and are uniquely placed to both account for, and communicate, the toll of America’s wars. And now is the time.

Consider that landmines and unexploded bombs killed some 40,000 Vietnamese in the decades after American forces left Vietnam. Another 100,000 or so have been wounded in the errant blasts. That’s not much fewer than the total US military casualties in the war: 58,220 dead, and 153,303 wounded. The specificity gap should be striking. It remains unclear how many Vietnamese died during that conflict (hence the nice round numbers), as the still rather contested estimates range from one to three million. What’s more, precious few Americans realized Vietnamese kept getting killed after the war’s supposed end.

The same sort of precision chasm applies in today’s ongoing wars. We know to a man (or woman) exactly how many American soldiers were killed and wounded in each theater of the forever wars. For example, during just the year 2007 – when I was deployed in Iraq – an official congressional report notes that precisely 1,953 service members died of various causes. Furthermore, in the Iraq War as whole, we know that 4,419 troops died (and that exactly 41 were Filipino-American) while a further 33,994 were wounded in action (six of whom were Eskimo).

As for the Iraqis: we’re not so sure – and may never know the full tally. The decidedly imprecise estimates range from a conservative 288,000 to a staggering 2.4 million. And both counts leave out the approximately 576,000 Iraqi children who perished during the US sanctions stranglehold from 1990-2003. The same specificity gap applies in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and a few dozen other recent American battlegrounds. During the early years of the Iraq War, Associated Press issued almost daily reports of Iraqis killed. But over 10 years ago, they stopped as they moved away from regular coverage of that war. However, took up the slack and has continued to report the numbers of Iraqis killed on an almost daily basis.

In an immediate sense, American soldiers hardly killed all of these people; nor did the troops directly decide to invade a vast swath of countries after 9/11. Nonetheless, veterans shouldn’t hide behind a false veneer of innocence or ignorance. All of us were volunteers, had some sense of what could unfold, and – while the burden isn’t ours alone – bear much responsibility for the death and destruction. Nearly two decades have passed since President George W. Bush declared the global war on terror. So as the COVID-pandemic exposes the inadequacies and fictions of the US national security posture, and the vulnerabilities of past and present victims of American war-making, veterans should speak up in the name of decency and mercy.

No doubt, the question of culpability is a tricky one where veterans are concerned. Some of us are rather touchy, and unwilling to take the rap for foreign policies crafted in Washington. Only that’s not the point. This call for accountability is hardly a veteran indictment; if anything, my own love for "the boys" with whom I served constitutes an intellectual and ethical blind spot. Rather, the issue is one of timing and the collective need to turn a dirty page and move forward.

Notably, veterans aren’t exactly the "right-wing," hawkish monolith they’ve been made out to be. For example, well into year nineteen of America’s longest war, it is remarkable that nearly 75 percent of polled veterans and their family members now support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Still, one more step remains: for the troops to engage in an informal Truth and Reconciliation process.

First modeled in post-apartheid South Africa, its inherent systemic wisdom was to focus, not on punishment, but rather, on honesty and accountability as the best path to healing and progress. It goes without saying that American soldiers aren’t mirror images of apartheid-era security forces. Nevertheless, with exponentially more corona deaths than there were casualties in the 9/11 attacks (and US deaths in Vietnam) , no end in sight for Washington’s wars, and as the local victims of those conflicts brace for pandemic, the time has come for veteran confession.

For what, then, must America’s the troops account? Well, any honest, soul-searching reflection must begin with the immediate employment of violence, then shift to the more indirect and emotional damage done.

Most obviously, accountability begins with all those shot – or ordered shot – by a range of rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers that the foot soldiers carried. Then there are all the deadly munitions some dropped from the sky in the relative comfort and safety of aircraft piloted ten thousand feet above or drones controlled from just outside Las Vegas. That includes those – like me – who called the airstrikes under a bit more duress in the field. We didn’t always know exactly who was under those attacks; even "smart bombs” weren’t all knowing. If the strikes were as precise as billed, certainly the military wouldn’t have needed to devise the euphemistic collateral damage estimate (CDE) – essentially a risk calculus on the likelihood of civilian death.

Then there are the detainees that some soldiers personally abused and that many more callously dismissed or treated with disdain. Huge proportions of these prisoners were ultimately released for lack of evidence. Add to that the houses, farmlands, and livestock destroyed whether in retribution, perceived tactical expediency, or just frustration. Remember too, the crimes some ignored – or failed to halt quickly enough – because the perpetrators were local "allies” who were often glorified warlords with uniforms. Then pile on the bodies of the folks that our units employed, or (perhaps unwittingly) transformed into collaborators, who were later executed as traitors. I, for one, am still haunted by the off-duty assassination in Southeast Baghdad of a charismatic unit interpreter – "Bob."

Let us admit, as well, to all the men, women, and children, frightened half to death by our violent late-night raids of countless houses, or through erratic driving (even if usually reflective of our own fear and IED-avoidance strategies). Finally, all should be ashamed of the language many soldiers used – the racial pejoratives slung – against local peoples we rarely understood. In that sense "haji" became the obscene corollary to "gook" slang in the Vietnam War. It is here, in seemingly harmless discourse, that the dehumanization begins.

All in all, America’s veterans aren’t all villains. It’s rarely so simple. Yet we were victimizers: by definition as much as action. Though certain veterans may recoil at the label, I sense that they know deep-down – as do most who’ve dealt and witnessed death up close – that no matter the politics, and regardless of the tactical context, at the moment of fatal violence victim and victimizer share a kinship. Veterans ought to be big enough to cop to what’s ours and imagine better futures.

After all, if the virus has shown anything, it’s that national defense begins at home. While hardly angels, America’s veterans have much to offer a post-pandemic world. Only it’s not what the corporate headhunters usually seek them out for. More than discipline, fitness, or even leadership, what society needs is the knowledge of combat vets. The three-quarters of former soldiers who support withdrawal from Afghanistan understand, viscerally, the absurdity of endless war. Probably more than that have seen the face of real poverty, suffering, and displacement that combat wrought. Many have even shown mercy – through small, unreported acts of kindness – to people who were otherwise their victims.

For better or worse, the American people trust the military – maybe only the military. Thus there’s no better group than veterans to lend influential voices to worldwide calls to end endless war, and freeze corona-exacerbating sanctions. Today’s tragedies recall Oliver Stone’s Platoon, specifically the protagonist’s soliloquy as he’s choppered out of Vietnam in the film’s closing scene:

Those of us who did make it, have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.

If not now, when?

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. 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. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen