They sure didn’t look the part. These weren’t a bunch of stereotypical hippie peaceniks. As I surveyed the room in the beautiful DC brownstone which hosted the BringOurTroopsHome.us opening night reception, I saw well-built, well-dressed men and women, many still sporting military-style haircuts (though often with a well-groomed beard). Instead of tie-dye shirts, I spied some flag-lapel pins, a few Trump 2020 ball caps, and even a big old cowboy hat. Yet all these relatively young combat veterans were gathered in the nation’s capital last week with a common cause: ending America’s endless wars! The very wars, of course, that they had fought, the wars they could still smell, the wars that killed their friends.
The entire event was remarkable, and, even a few years ago, would have seemed unthinkable. What I witnessed, and took part in, represents a profound pivot point in America’s post-9/11 forever wars. As those hopeless, countless, conflicts enter their 19th year, the nation’s veterans have finally had enough. I’d noticed the first rumblings of this over the last coupe of years, when texts and phone conversations with old military buddies, and still serving officers, took on increasing frustrated, even exasperated, tones. Then, this past summer, came empirical evidence of what many had suspected, in the form polls which indicated nearly two-thirds of veterans felt the wars they’d once fought were "not worth it." Coming from a caste of volunteers that tend to be slightly more rural, conservative, and likely to have a family legacy in the military, that’s a significant statement.
It must be said, of course, that BringOurTroopsHome.us is not a partisan organization. After all, the gathering was rather diverse: including veterans of different races, genders, and regions. In fact, the next afternoon, the organization set up meetings with these veterans’ congressmen and senators from 24 states. Still, the attendees clearly leaned in a rightward, libertarian direction. In a sense I, a vaguely liberal sort, initially felt the odd man out. When Dan McKnight, a founding member, called and invited me, I confessed my political differentiation. He immediately assured me that all veterans opposed to these wars were welcome, and I decided in that moment to attend. I’d long surmised that there’s a natural potential alliance budding between progressive and libertarian antiwar activists. Perhaps I’d found an organization in the vanguard of this powerful nexus.
Featured speakers over the two day event included a lieutenant governor and state majority whip, both from the Mountain West, a retired special operations brigadier general, a few retired lieutenant colonels, as well as young former sergeants and corporals. All were committed, regardless of their personal angles or strategies, to the belief that endless war erodes republican institutions and inappropriately churns up the nation’s servicemen and women. The event was carefully organized and highly professional, in keeping with the military backgrounds and experiences of the group’s leadership. Media had been coordinated, and several dozen congressional visits scheduled.
It was unfortunate, then, that the very day of the event, as these esteemed national servants gathered in Washington to protest the most important issue of the times, most of the press and the country’s legislators were busy – distracted by the impeachment charade on Capitol Hill. Here were decorated veterans, who’d done all the nation asked of them, prepared to oppose the endless wars crippling this ostensible democracy, and all the political and media class cared about was the aimless Ukraine-gate affair, a partisan parody almost certain to amount to nothing. As such, most of us received audiences of staffers rather than the legislators themselves. Our flood of congressional visits was still a powerful statement, but our representatives mostly owed us better.
Personally, I met with two representatives – a Democrat from New York City and a Republican from Kansas – both veterans themselves, and a senator from Kansas. Rep. Steve Watkins, of Kansas, a fellow West Point graduate, did give me some unexpected and unscheduled face time. He was cordial, personable, and refreshingly informal, even though our politics diverge in almost every way. Nonetheless, the staffers with whom I spoke in each office had few answers to my desperate pleas to front load foreign policy and take tangible action – repeal the 2001/02 AUMFs, wield the War Powers Act to end, or at least legally sanction these conflicts – on the the national disgrace of forever war.
Most pointed to, and defended, aspects of their bosses’ records on these issues. And admittedly, some had opposed the Yemen war, and one backed – at least in principle – the president’s (unfulfilled) proposal to end the U.S. military presence in Syria. Still, when asked about inconsistencies in their war votes and positions, and their (thus far) unwillingness to lead on this issue, I was treated to mostly excuses. These ranged from the partisan variety – Republican reps can’t achieve much while the Dems control the House – to the structural and bureaucratic. House and committee leadership, it seems, have too much power and often stifle bold, especially bipartisan, positions. Nonetheless, with young men and women born after September 2001 currently training for a war older than they are, the national debt skyrocketing, and civil liberties at home increasingly eroding, the time for political excuses is long past. And I told them so.
The veteran activists of BringOurTroopsHome.us are just the start of what may well be a deluge of antiwar former soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines finally ready to speak out against endless conflict in the Greater Middle East. They’ll be, I promise you, on the right side of history. Their congressmen – imbued with the constitutional duty to fund, sanction, and oversee war – I’m not so sure of. That they’ve allowed these aimless forever wars to gather an inertia all their own, and have yet to unite to stop the madness, is – in the words of that retired general who gave the organization’s keynote speech – "unforgivable."
As I warned each of the three staffers assigned to politely hear me out, the issue is urgent; potential tragedy imminent. Take action, be a leader, and stop these wars now, I repeated, or something even more dreadful will be partly on their hands: the inevitable death of a soldier born after the 9/11 attacks in the nation’s longest ever war. Now that’s unforgivable.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. 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