Unbridgeable Gap: Who We Were and Who We Thought We Were

"War is just a racket… I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service…during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."
~ Major General Smedley Butler, US Marine Corps, 2 time Medal of Honor recipient (1935)

I grew up in blue-collar Staten Island, New York City. My mother was a waitress, my father an overqualified civil servant who also painted houses and delivered Chinese food in Brooklyn. I come from a world where it seems you’re either a cop, a fireman, or a junkie. My mother had four brothers; two, along with my grandfather, were FDNY to the core; the others fell deep into the drug and alcohol game; it killed them both. But not me; no, I was the family’s golden child, always the pleaser, always high achieving, and I’d do something special. I thought it was my destiny.

In July 2001, while my high school friends partied during the summer before college, I found myself at Cadet Basic Training – "Beast Barracks," as we called – a new officer candidate at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Hating it from the start, I wanted out, but, well, quitting wasn’t an option. Four years later, I was one of 911 cadets who graduated – Time magazine profiled us as the "Class of 9/11" – and commissioned in the US Army on May 28, 2005. Some 18 months later, I arrived in Baghdad.

For me, a high school senior in the year before the world changed, the army seemed glamorous, and, surprisingly safe. Back then there were no long, or "real," wars. American soldiers almost never fired a shot in anger, let alone got killed. I guess I imagined overseas travel, at worst a tour peacekeeping in Kosovo or something, which, I figured, would provide cool photo ops and interesting stories.

Two months after beginning basic training, in September, while sparring in plebe (freshman) boxing class, the towers fell, and everything changed. I’m embarrassed to admit that, for the next four years at West Point, my biggest fear was that the wars would end before I could ship over and do my part. Truth is, I don’t recognize that kid anymore.

The intervening 17 years have been a blur: training, deployment, promotions, more training, another deployment. It’s been a long, emotional path from enthusiasm, to belief, to doubt, to dissent. Reflecting, now, on my wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – and on my country’s other conflicts – Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. – is both difficult and cathartic. What’s been most disturbing is discovering the gap between who we, the vets and this whole nation, thought we were, and, in reality, who we actually were.

And, in each war, in every case, there’s been a tremendous chasm between the comforting fables we’re told to believe, and the reality of the American military’s role in the Greater Middle East.

*Afghanistan seemed the most defensible invasion. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were there, they’d planned the broad contours of the 9/11 attacks in that landlocked, barren shithole (to borrow a cheeky phrase from our current commander-in-chief). We, the soldiers and the American citizenry, were told to kick ass, take vengeance, and, in the process, to bring democracy, gender equality, and basic modernity to Kabul and Kandahar.

In reality, bin Laden escaped, Al Qaeda fighters died or fled, and counter-terror quickly morphed into armed nation-building. The US military backed venal warlords, an increasing illegitimate, corrupt central government run by the Karzai-clique and a slew of drug lords. By the time I arrived, in 2011, we were battling illiterate farm boys calling themselves "Taliban," and fighting and dying for scraps of worthless dirt we’d evacuate soon enough. And, we’re still there.

*Iraq, we were told, had WMDs, had colluded with Al Qaeda, and that Saddam Hussein was a loose cannon who had to be stopped…like now! Once there, on the ground, the U.S. military had to stay indefinitely, to "fight them over there," so that we didn’t have to "fight them here at home." It was a farce, a fiasco. Then, we were told, we had to reengage, keep fighting (we still are) to vanquish the ISIS menace.

In reality, it was all so much BS. The intelligence was wrong, potentially fabricated, and Saddam, in truth, was a tightly caged animal unable to menace his neighbors. The U.S. military injected chaos, shattered a society, unearthed sectarian tensions, and unleashed a brutal civil war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, millions became refugees. By the time I arrived, in 2006, the place was on fire and we found the tortured corpses in the streets. We locked up who we could, killed who we couldn’t, and paid off former insurgents to lay down their arms. ISIS, which didn’t exist on 9/11, was birthed and matured in our prison camps. It exploded across northern and western Iraq in 2014, a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of our ill-advised invasion. Iran backed the Shia militias that saved Baghdad from ISIS and it was Iran, not the U.S., which emerged as the real winner in Iraq. Of course, we’re still there, anyway.

*Libya was a supposedly "humanitarian" intervention, unleashed by a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, a "liberal" president. We had an R2P – a responsibility to protect – rebels who’d otherwise be slaughtered by their brutal dictator, "Mad Dog" Gadhafi. It’d be short, it’d be neat, and the U.S. military could do much good with little exertion.

In reality, the U.S. and its NATO allies took it a step further. The R2P morphed into all out regime change, and – without any real plan for the day after Gadhafi was brutally murdered – Libya descended into chaos. "No-drama" Obama candidly called it a “shit show.” Rival militias carved out fiefdoms, ISIS opened a local franchise, and tribal fighters once allied with Gadhafi took their skills – and an arsenal of weapons – south, destabilizing Mali, Cameroon, and Niger. Soon enough, American soldiers would start dying in that last locale. We’re still there, too, and still bombing Libya.

*In Syria, we’d back local rebels to topple another pitiless tyrant, Bashar al Assad. No ground troops or airstrikes would be necessary. The Saudis and other Gulf States were on our team. The rebels were moderate, they’d take Damascus and install a democratic government allied to the West.

In reality, the rebels couldn’t prevail, they’d be bombed into oblivion and rise like an Islamist Phoenix from the ashes. Our arms would end up in the hands of an Al Qaeda affiliate, Russia would intervene, and so would Iran. The Saudis, our "friends" would back those same Al Qaeda-linked groups, and ISIS – newly empowered in Iraq – would jump the border and wage a transnational jihad. The U.S. would do some bombing, but only to protect vulnerable civilians. There’d be no ground troops, until there were. Civilians would be spared by our escalated bombing, until they weren’t. We’d do what it took to collapse the caliphate, and would back the loyal Kurds, until we abandoned them too. Now we militarily occupy one-third of Syria and stare down Russians, Turks, Iranians, and Assadists along the Euphrates River, just one spark, one mistake, away from a major war. There we remain.

*In Yemen, we were told the Houthi rebels were an Iranian front. We had to back our "allies," the Saudis, in their terror bombing campaign. Otherwise Iran would win! It was really the Houthis who denied the civilian populace access to humanitarian assistance. Besides, this was a Saudi war, and the U.S. would take a back seat.

In reality, the Houthis weren’t Iranian stooges; that was an exaggeration. The official toll is 10,000 dead civilians, though most counts stopped in 2016. Iona Craig, an investigative journalist and Yemen specialist, recently told me that 50,000 is a more likely figure. A Saudi starvation blockade has ushered in famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. And the whole war is at a stalemate, unlikely to end anytime soon. Worse yet, here, at least, the United States could end this war. We have that in our power. Without U.S. provision of in-flight refueling, guided munitions, and targeting intelligence, the Saudi campaign would ground to a halt. We are complicit, and we should be ashamed. We still back the Saudis.

In so many of the above cases the United States has worked with, or for, peculiar regional powers: on behalf, or to the advantage of, Saudi Arabia or Iran. In Yemen, and, sometimes Syria, the U.S. military has been nothing more than the Saudi Kingdom’s air force, logisticians, and arms dealers.

As a lowly, ground-pounding, soldier, I’ve been an embattled police officer of sorts, doing the bidding of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, or their associated proxies across the region. Never, in any tangible sense, did we act in vital American interests or make the world a safer place.

In that broader, global sense, we were told the U.S. was a force for good, an “indispensable nation,” a bringer of liberty. In reality, we were a counterproductive force for chaos, the armed wing of an increasing rogue, though ostensibly democratic, regime in Washington.

And me, well, I survived, and tried to get as many of those around me, those in my charge, home safe. At that I failed. And so did America.

Major Danny Sjursen, a regular AntiWar.com contributor, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson.

[Note: 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.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen