"After the first death, there is no other."
~ Dylan Thomas
It’s 5:55 AM and I wake up for one more of my last few days in the army – the end of middling soldier’s career – here at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The BBC (I refuse to watch mainstream American news in 2018) is ablaze with the latest reports from the Gaza Strip – some 60 more unarmed Palestinians massacred along the border. Ever so typically, not a single Israeli soldier or citizen was killed.
Then Israel sends its apologist ministers to speak to the world, to America really. "They deserved it," "they were all terrorists," "Hamas was behind the protests," "Israel must protect its border," on and on the sardonic ablutions flow. If the unarmed protesters were, as is regularly claimed, "All Hamas," then they were the most incompetent terrorists in world history. The battle is so one sided that it borders on the absurd.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) make a mockery of the broadly accepted jus in Bello strictures for justice in warfare: proportionality and discrimination. One must, to cohere with basic morals and international law, strive to kill only combatants and use only so much force as is necessary to remove a threat. One look at the video speaks for itself: Israeli troops think they’re above the law, any law. Guess who else has acted with such disdain for the principles of proportionality and discrimination: Hamas. The irony is lost on many Israelis…and Americans.
All the while, a U.S. president is silent, an American populace is implicated.
There’ll be little time and less energy for mourning on American television today. Hawks will defend Israel, "liberals" will apologize for it. Trump will tweet, Kanye will talk, and the Gaza story will pass. Palestinians, who are twice tainted – Muslims and Arabs – will never garner the sympathy of White America. Their lives are worth less than the potential anxiety of a single Israeli.
Washington, and the entire US machine will fall in line and back Israel. It always does.
Why not? We did this, we were accessories, and we were complicit.
I’ve been party to America’s war for the Greater Middle East for decades now. While we lowly soldiers toiled – and bled – around the margins, propping up incompetent faltering governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real work got done behind the scenes. We were but a cover, a symptom even, of the real war in the Levant.
In this struggle the US blatantly took sides. We – the taxpayers – fed the Saudi and Israeli beasts. There has been funding and excuses aplenty for these two "partners."
In the Saudis, we back an intolerant theocracy, one of the last absolute monarchies on earth. They’re murderous thugs, but they’re our murderous thugs. Yemeni civilians and Shia dissidents be damned!
Ironically, the US also empowers the far-right, ostensibly democratic, government of Israel. In its last dubious and deceitful move, our "beacon of freedom" recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of the Jews, and only the Jews. The move was one sided, probably illegal (UN resolutions call for a division and "final settlement" of Jerusalem’s status) and helped fuel the latest wave of hopeless Palestinian disenchantment.
From a purely strategic standpoint – which seems almost obscene in this blood-soaked moment – the unbridled US commitment to Israel makes us less safe. America’s unqualified backing of Israel was one of Bin Laden’s three published gripes. New Yorkers who knew little about this conflict reaped its consequences in those two towers.
As I entered and searched thousands of houses and apartments in Baghdad and Kandahar, I was often amazed by the ubiquitous presence of posters and paintings depicting Al Quds – Jerusalem. I listened intently to the grievances of hundreds of peaceful Muslims who sought only to explain why so many of their fellow citizens tried to kill me and mine.
And so it is: when the IDF shoots innocents they place US troops and civilians in the crosshairs. Our innocence is suspect.
Today, at least, I’m in no mood for the attacks that will be heading my way: that I am anti-Semitic for even daring to criticize the barbarous tactics of the IDF; that I’m a "terrorist" apologist, and on and on. It’s all bullshit, of course, an absolute logical absurdity used to stifle dissent.
The IDF’s choices and the cynical governing strategies of Prime Minister Netanyahu do not encapsulate the whole of Israeli society. There are "liberals" and empathetic people within that nation, even if their power has waned and their voices are regularly shouted down by the jingoists in charge. Furthermore, to abhor the lopsided slaughter of Palestinians – many of them women and children – is not akin to denying Israel’s inherent right to exist.
This author, at least, is a humanist – a believer that Jewish and Arab lives matter – and an idealist in the sense that I cling to the hope that Israel can be both secure and humane. Maybe, after the events of this past day, that’s a forlorn fantasy. Perhaps we should have recognized this dark fact long ago.
What I do know is this: the United States of America – whether ruled by "liberal" Barack Obama or vaguely "conservative" Donald Trump – can no longer even pretend to be a fair arbiter for peace in the Holy Land. We, all of us, are complicit in the totality of America’s ill-fated, increasingly immoral crusade in the Mideast. We are the air wing of the Saudis’ unfolding genocide in Yemen; advisors and logisticians to an illegitimate, venal, corrupt government in Afghanistan; creators of a veritable monster who will now rule Iraq; and, of course, arms dealer and big brother shielding the sins of an apartheid regime in Israel.
Once upon a time I was a believer; perhaps I needed to believe. I was a soldier, but also a self-styled humanitarian, bent on riding the region of evil and building a liberal civil society (in America’s own, flawed image, of course). I was distraught when George W. Bush couldn’t make it to my West Point graduation – and I wasn’t even a Republican, just another "patriot" I’d assumed.
17 long years have passed and my wars are finally in the rearview. What, besides ushering in a new set of decadent authoritarians and warlords, can I claim to have accomplished? Qui bono – for whose benefit did I serve and grieve and lose so much? Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the American military-industrial complex, that’s who. It’s a racket.
I’m a victim of a marked moral injury. And I’m not alone.
I fought on the duplicitous team that decries the death of each and every Western, Caucasian victim of "terrorism," but utters not a sound in response to the gruesome massacre of brown Palestinians in Gaza. Maybe I fought on the wrong side; maybe there is no "right" side.
Of this much I’m certain: I killed those unarmed men, women, and children at the Gaza border. My arms and my efforts enabled the massacre.
The blood is on my, and America’s, hands. So is the shame.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. 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. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[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