The Switch: ‘Liberal’ Thought Police and Endless War

"People can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders…All you have to do is tell them they’re being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Hermann Goering, Nazi Field Marshal and Hitler henchman

Somehow I’m always a "traitor." At least according to my critics. It’s a rather odd thing, however. See, I’ve been penning antiwar screeds for over five years, much of it done whilst still on active duty. During just under three of those years Obama was president. Back then, when I criticized Bush’s old wars and Obama’s new ones, my ubiquitous hate mail – "love it or leave it," "you’re a communist," "you’re a disgrace to the uniform" – came from the hawkish right. That much I expected.

Then my universe inverted. The moment Trump was elected, if ever I dared cheer his anti-interventionist rhetoric (though rarely his deeds), my "friends" on left attacked me with even more intensity than the neocons. But the language was mostly the same. I was still a "traitor," still "anti-American," only now I was also a "Trump-apologist," even a "Putin-puppet." Once purportedly antiwar liberals were horrified that I hoped, and sought to encourage, that Trump might end even a couple of the hopeless American conflicts. Born again hawks, these folks now rose like a mythical Phoenix to support the wars Trump theoretically opposed. As a tiny band played "The World Turned Upside Down” on repeat in my head, it occurred to me that this turn of events represented something profound: liberal thought policing, consensus disciplining, and the limits of Democrats’ antiwar activism.

Look, I’m a lefty, for the most part. My academic specialty is in African-American civil rights history. Eugene Debs is one of my heroes. The morning after the 2016 election I said unspeakable, hateful things – the sort you can’t really take back – to my Trump-voting father. In my last year in the army, I was even under a serious, pension-threatening, investigation according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ," for the crime of publishing language "contemptuous" of President Trump.

The editors here at accept my "progressive" sins because we’re in the end-the-endless-war trenches together. But of course, my libertarian friends enjoy treating me to a good ribbing. So you can understand why it seems so odd, so preposterous, this recent spate of attacks leveled against me as a "Trump apologist," even a "Trump supporter." I mean I’m not. Still, the fact that my ostensible compatriots – at least the mainstream liberals – are the ones directing these attacks is instructive. Their hysterical critiques define these alarmist times. Consider it Red Scare 2.0: Russia Strikes Back.

On some level, this is nothing new. The left has a long history of eating its own, especially in times of war. During America’s foolish crusade in World War I, most Progressives – as they then (as now) styled themselves – promptly ditched their past dovish positions and jumped on the war, and hyper-patriotic, bandwagon. The minority that held true to antiwar sentiments were smeared with particular virulence, branded un-American, even treasonous. Careers and reputations were ruined; more radical peace activists were sometimes jailed. And why not? The "war president," Woodrow Wilson, was a Democrat too (though there were then some Progressives among Republicans), and the Party faithful quickly fell in line with their commander-in-chief.

The cycle repeated when "Saint" Obama was president. Liberals who had loudly opposed Bush’s wars hardly blanched when their president promptly escalated wars in Afghanistan and West Africa, entered new ones in Libya and Syria, and exponentially increased region-wide drone strikes. We were treated to the sound of crickets for eight long years, as if antiwar Democrats had gone into hibernation.

However, today, these attacks on me – and many others – as neo-Trumpsters or "Russian assets," has a flavor all its own. A Republican, at least in name, is president. Liberals hate him with even more ferocity than Baby Bush. Reflexive anti-Trumpism – though often warranted – is now so instinctual and unthinking that it borders on anti-intellectual hysteria. So yes, MSNBC liberals certainly hate Trump…but not his wars. This is curious, unique, and unlike the Bush-era opposition. Why? I’d submit that the variable is Trump himself.

See, on the campaign trail, over the White House twitter account, and in a few recent speeches, Trump has expressed – though rarely acted upon – some sensible, even profound, antiwar sentiments. He’s long said his "instincts” are to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and last month he made a show (really a reshuffling) of clumsily pulling the troops out of Syria. At least rhetorically, Trump opposes endless war in the Middle East. And, well, in these tribal times, if Trump’s against something, most Dems are for it! Even wars they once opposed, for years.

Take Rachel Maddow. She was wildly opposed to Bush’s Wars – even wrote an excellent book decrying American military interventionism – then kept silent during Obama’s Wars, and now cheerleads Trump’s Wars. But they’re all the same wars! Rachel, intelligent as she undoubtedly is, thus exposed her intellectual dishonesty. And she’s taken much of the liberal establishment with her. It’s legitimately scary.

Silly me, I thought the "left" was supposed to be against endless war in the Greater Middle East. We now know, once and for all, that they never really were. Rather than anti-war, they were ultimately just anti-Bush, and now anti-Trump. It’s about politics, not patriotism. Party first, country second. Need proof? Not a single Democrat in the House supported Trump’s gesture towards ending the Syria debacle. Not one. On the other hand, every voting Democrat had recently voted for ending U.S. support for the Saudi terror war in Yemen. Well sure, Trump likes that war, so the Dems hate it.

What of the populace at large? That’s an even stranger matter. In today’s upside down world, Republicans are more opposed to endless conflict than Democrats. In a recent poll, 57 percent of Republicans favored ending the military mission in Syria; 76 percent of Democrats opposed it. Most combat veterans – not a traditionally progressive lot – are also against America’s ongoing wars, if anyone cares to know. Other polls are even more alarming, and portend poorly for the future.

Large majorities of all Americans, but especially Democrats, seem eminently persuadable to support a new war, this time with Iran. Just as 42 percent of the public believed – even after the invasion of Iraq – that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and 55 percent thought he directly supported Al Qaeda (neither was even remotely true), so too are the citizens of today misinformed about Iran. In a poll conducted late last month, 84 percent of Americans said they were concerned that Iran was developing nuclear weapons (it is not), including 89 percent of Democrats. Say what?

Lastly, there’s the, perhaps even more dangerous, liberal establishment’s policing of foreign policy thought, which narrows the range of "acceptable" discourse, and threatens (small d) democracy. That’s where the attacks on my writing, my character, and my "Americanism," come in. But it isn’t just me. Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, and the CNN-MSNBC duo’s absurd slander that Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard – an antiwar long shot presidential contender and serving major in the US Army – is a "Russian asset," being "groomed," perhaps by the Republicans, for a third-party run, personifies the current fit of national delirium. Tulsi’s combat tours (what branch did Hillary or Rachel serve in?) couldn’t save her from accusations of treason – a crime punishable by death for a serving soldier – and my 18 odd years in uniform won’t protect me from the new breed of Democratic neo-McCarthyism.

Mind you, the establishment liberal thought police have not, and will not, provide a shred of evidence that I, Tulsi, and our like-minded brothers and sisters are "un-American" "traitors." They don’t have to. Even muted praise for Trump’s few sensible pronouncements, or the use "Putin talking points" like ending regime change wars, is today a sin punishable by libel, by professional and intellectual exile. Proof, evidence, truth – these concepts no longer matter. As a Bush official pronounced back in the Iraq War days, "We’re an empire now." And as the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy so presciently wrote, "When it comes to Empire, facts don’t matter…"

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, 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. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen