Millions of American troops have spent countless holidays away from home, in Iraq, Afghanistan and various smaller wars across the region – it’s worth asking what it’s all for.
The memories can be fond, some of them anyway. Patrolling in the morning with a platoon full of mates – brothers, really – and then returning to base to share decent turkey dinners flown in for our enjoyment. We wore dirty uniforms, gorged ourselves on turkey and sides, and washed it all down with plentiful doses of nonalcoholic beer and energy drinks. Another year, sticking around the chow hall after the holiday meal to watch cricket matches with the vaguely Pakistani contractors who prepared and served our food, desperately trying to learn the rules of the odd sport.
For all the hardships of three holidays spent in Iraq and Afghanistan (2006, 2007, and 2011), the army never failed to get us a Thanksgiving Dinner of sorts. There was a certain sadness, of course, about being away from family and friends – but it was surprisingly easy to face the day and manage a smile in front of the troops. Our humor was dark – dark as hell – but, in times since, I’ve rarely laughed so hard. In a way, Thanksgivings at war weren’t all that bad.
Other memories are rather more morbid. Like when a few military policemen on my Forward Operating Base – cheekily nicknamed "Mortaritaville" on T-shirts sold in the post shop – were wounded by mortar fire while walking to Thanksgiving Dinner. Truth is, American casualties were so common in the Baghdad of 2006-07 that they really only registered as numbers – monthly statistics we used to measure violence in the city. Just another day engulfed in the fire of civil war.
I can’t remember all of the details. Memories can be hazy, and, strangely – manufactured in a way. Still, this Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself thinking back on those three holidays abroad; taking stock of what it was my units had (or had not) accomplished and of my own mental evolution.
On November 23, 2006, a U.S. Army National Guard sergeant was killed by small arms fire in Baghdad and another National Guard corporal was killed by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) in Afghanistan. I was a 23-year old scout platoon leader then. My unit had only been in country about a month. No one had been killed or seriously injured. The little combat we had seen was but a cat-and-mouse game of short firefights. I’m embarrassed to admit it all seemed rather exciting; in fact, I secretly longed for more action and more war stories. And for my sins I’d get them.
We ate as a platoon in the decent-sized chow hall on Camp Rustamiyah in southeast Baghdad. As for the war, well, it was at one of many low points. Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, was engulfed in a sectarian civil war that’s never truly ended. It may never. Oh, and on that Thanksgiving Day, at least 32 Iraqis were killed. Barely anyone cared about them.
On November 22, 2007, a US Army staff sergeant was killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in Iraq. My unit was still in Baghdad that year for our second straight Thanksgiving – we’d had our tour extended by three months to help execute President George W. Bush’s troop "surge." I was now the executive officer (XO) of my cavalry troop, acting as the logistics and supply point-man and serving as troop second-in-command. By then, there was nothing glamorous left in that shit-hole of a war. Three of my platoon’s soldiers were dead; one was paralyzed; a few more wounded. There were so many new faces – replacement soldiers – that it was hard to keep up.
I ate with friends, other young officers, in that same camp chow hall. It was a darker day. Anger and frustration – rather than the excitement of the year before – pervaded our conversations on that Thanksgiving. Sure, violence was down – so said General David Petraeus and his statistical charts – but even then we could sense that this was but a temporary pause. Several hundred American troops had died in the intervening year and it was hard to see the point of it all. Oh, and on that Thanksgiving Day, at least 22 Iraqis were killed. No one noticed – violence was "down" after all.
On November 24, 2011, miraculously, no American troops died in either major theater of war. Still, during that month, seven soldiers died in Iraq and 31 lost their lives in Afghanistan. By then the wars had swapped places. The US military now surged in Afghanistan and that was the main theater. I was now the commander of a cavalry troop and ate turkey with my officers and men on a small combat outpost (COP) in the Pashmul district of Kandahar province. Our troop had already lost three dead, several limbs, and suffered more than two dozen wounded. For all that, we barely held more ground than we personally stood on. The Taliban all but had us locked up in our our tiny forts and they attacked us that Thanksgiving – just as they did on nearly every day of our almost complete 2011-12 tour of duty.
I ate with my lieutenants and troopers in a large, dirty green tent – but at least the turkey was there, and hot. By then I’d all but given up on the wars of American interventionism. If I was excited in ’06, and angry in ’07, I was, to be honest, absurdly apathetic by ’11. All that matter to this 28-year-old captain was minimizing casualties and getting the boys home safely to Kansas. We, the American people, were told by then that the war in Iraq was over, a victory – still 11 Iraqis were killed in internecine fighting. It was nearly impossible to find any statistical data on Afghan deaths, but they invariably outweighed those in Iraq.
This past Thanksgiving, the US military remained at war – now actively engaged in at least seven Muslim-majority countries. There’s no end in sight. Every time we, the people, were told that victory was "just around the corner," our hopes were foiled. Afghanistan is in worse shape than ever before, Iraq’s fragile political structure remains highly unstable and low-level guerrilla warfare continues unabated. The entire Middle East, rather than blooming as a new garden of liberal democracy (the dream of George W. Bush) remains awash in violence, famine, and record refugee flows. It is now beyond farcical to imagine any sort of American "victory" in the region.
And this author, well, he spent this Thanksgiving, without his family and on a shoe-strong of mental health – a marriage on the rocks, worsening PTSD, and in the grips of depression. There were times, this holiday, that I earnestly wished I was back in Baghdad or Kandahar – laughing along with comrades as we lost a war that shouldn’t have been fought. The mind plays tricks, you know? Still, other veterans had it worse. Data indicates about 22 vets kill themselves per day – and the stats don’t break for the holidays. Others struggled to keep warm under bridges or in various shelters. Meanwhile, jets flew over packed NFL stadiums adorned with field-sized American flags, and mainstream media outlets treated viewers to cheerful video notes home from deployed troops. Hardly anyone asked what we’re still doing there.
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