A Life and Nation Transformed: 20 Years On From West Point’s Gates and the War on Terror

When I entered West Point’s Thayer Gate – and army life – 20 years ago last month, America was not at war. Not really anyway. Back then, when a 17-year-old’s mother (had to) sign him into the military, he might expect some peacekeeping duty in Kosovo or – at worst – an unlucky street battle in Somalia or a lopsided 100-hour ground war in the Gulf. More exciting were expected foreign flings with German, South Korean – or heck, even Kentucky – girls.

Then everything changed.

Two months and 10 days later, my section of exhausted cadets were shadowboxing in front of wall-sized mirrors in Arvin Gym – in what’s got to be about the only mandatory freshman pugilism class in the country – when someone ran in yelling something about the Twin Towers and a plane crash. The rest of the morning – and frankly the next two decades – remains a blur. There was already plenty excited – yet tinged with anxious – talk of war that day, week, month, and year. We got the war we expected – heck, half wanted – but it ballooned into something larger in scope and scale than even we posturing teen warriors would’ve imagined.

The (seemingly) obvious Afghan-directed retaliation was quickly eclipsed by an invasion and bloody interminable occupation of Iraq. Soon enough, graduates of our Air Force and Naval Academy football rivals were also bombing and blockading Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and across Africa’s Sahel. Below those bombs, Army soldiers were killing and dying in many of these spots – some of which, like Niger, probably less than five percent of Americans could pronounce…let alone locate on a map.

By my junior and senior year at West Point, it wasn’t uncommon to start mandatory mess hall mornings with moments of silence – whilst the a loudspeaker announced another graduate’s name who’d been killed in combat. Sure enough, on May 28, 2005, my own class donned our fresh lieutenants-bars. Coincidentally consisting of exactly 911 graduates, we donned Time Magazine’s cover – dubbed "The Class of 9/11." Within 18 months, some 70 percent of us were, or had been, to war not in Afghanistan – but an Iraq utterly unrelated to those September 11th attacks. Since then, eight of my classmates have been killed, a few took their own lives, and far more wounded, in wars that our generation of officer candidates never expected to fight back on July 2, 2001.

Deployment and Death, By The Numbers

The statistics back up these vague recollections. The worldwide distribution and deployment of active duty army personnel looked radically different at the time of the 9/11 attacks – and thus, so were the prospects for a budding soldier. Consider some easily juxtaposed – and jarring – highlights:

As of September 2001, 378,240 active soldiers (78.5 percent of the whole) were located in the United States and its territories; 68,640 of them (another 14.3 percent) were in Europe; 30,841 soldiers (6.3 percent) were (relatively) safely situated in South Korea or Japan. Just 2,945 active army personnel (just over one-half of one percent) were deployed in North Africa, the Near East, and South Asia – more than two-thirds of those in the non-combat zone of Kuwait – and a statistically insignificant 46 sat in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Outside the off chance that North Korea rolled over the US Army’s long-deployed "speed-bump" en route to Seoul, the only soldiers at any reasonable risk were the 8,775 (or 1.8 percent of the total) deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo. Even then, not a single American soldier had been killed by hostile fire in the entirety of the Bosnian and Kosovo interventions – and just 125 such Army combat deaths (98 in the First Gulf War, 27 in the ill-fatted Somalia mission) occurred over the preceding decade. Which is to say – though even then few civilians dared say so, and my own family cheered my courage in joining – being a member of the US Army wasn’t all that dangerous before America set off on its quixotic post-9/11 adventures.

This was no longer the case when I was serving at the height of both "surges" to nowhere-but-failure in 2007 (Iraq) and 2011 (Afghanistan). During a 2007 spent driving down Baghdad’s bomb-laden streets and dallying around its alleys, 847 (mostly) soldiers and marines were killed in action in various "war on terror" theaters. Another 211 took their own lives – a 38 percent jump from 2001.

In 2011, the last year of the initial iteration of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-11), 35 army soldiers were still killed by hostile fire in Mesopotamia. Another 250 soldiers – including three of my own – were killed in polite emperor Barack Obama’s failed Afghanistan surge. Another 301 committed suicide – a 43 percent increase from 2007, and almost double the number that took their own lives in 2001.

Fatal casualties in combat were way down by 2020 – as the Pentagon pivoted to more invisible and abstract war via drone, contracted mercenaries, and warlord proxies – with only nine killed (four in Iraq, four in Afghanistan, and one in Kenya – for god’s sake). Nonetheless, more service-members than ever were killing themselves – 326 active duty personnel alone in a year plagued by pandemic. Since 9/11, US troops have also been killed in such far-flung locales as Syria (five), Yemen (one Navy SEAL), Somalia (two – one green beret one Navy SEAL), and Niger (four) – which would’ve been unheard of back in the 1990s.

Even as the war in Afghanistan ostensibly ends, and the Iraq deployment has shrunken – without ending – the Army’s overall basing posture has still altered considerably, 20 years on. In 2001, some 90 percent of the 300,000 odd US military personnel stationed overseas were in Europe or East Asia. By 2010, more than half of the now nearly 400,000 foreign-based troops were in the Middle East and Africa. Admittedly, Obama announced a "pivot" back to Asia, and then Trump and Biden made some meaningful moves in that direction. Yet even as of March 2021, assignments to Germany, South Korea, and Japan had been cut nearly in half, replaced by tours in far hotter – literally and metaphorically – winding-down war zones.

Moreover, the US military footprint in Africa has literally transformed over two decades. According to formerly secret 2019 Pentagon documents, there are now 29 "enduring" and "non-enduring" – a purposefully misleading bit of bureaucratic titular trickery – American bases on the continent. Over 6,000 US service-members are reportedly stationed in Africa on any given day – around 130 times as many as were there back on 9/11.

Something else changed too. Thousands still serve in Syria and Iraq, but we can’t know exactly how many, since the Pentagon quietly raised a secrecy-middle-finger at a compliant Congress and cowed citizenry back in December 2017 – and classified the actual troop numbers in what it euphemistically brands "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO). One wonders if America’s statistical shift towards worldwide militarism is the biggest open secret in history.

For Our Sins

Nevertheless, while it’s easy to throw barbs at America’s distant top leaders and faceless systems or institutions – it’s become increasingly clear, and I’m increasingly aware, that my own 20-years-worth of scaled-down sins are inextricably tied to those of my country.

First off, there were the inevitably errant airstrikes I called or approved. The Pentagon fails to count, or purposefully undercounts, the number of civilians its drone and piloted-aircrafts kill – so it’s difficult to determine an accurate count – but the number certainly reaches into the tens of thousands. In 2019 alone, US and allied airstrikes killed at least 700, and according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), such aerial attacks killed some 4,390 Afghan civilians from 2006 to September 2020. Furthermore, the USconceded that 1,398 noncombatants were killed in coalition air and artillery strikes during the 2015-20 anti-ISIS campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Overall, estimates of the number of civilian killed in the direct, proxy, and communal-chaos induced violence of America’s post-9/11 adventures range from a conservative 335,000 to a couple of million dead men, women, and children.

For the most part, I insisted that my own soldiers treat civilians and prisoners with respect and decency. Yet, in one particular instance, this then 23-year-old off-the-rails and frustrated lieutenant waved his pistol around to scare an innocent old Iraqi man after an IED-strike. Of course, while unacceptable, that pales in comparison to the magnitude of America’s systemic prisoner abuse and the downright torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, countless CIA "black sites," and America’s still-open in-house purgatory of Guantanamo Bay.

Then there was my own incompetence and tactical missteps that inevitably got some of my soldiers killed and wounded on botched missions that should never have been attempted – and that I probably should’ve refused. That’s something I’ll live with ever more – no small thing, and not easily forgivable. Well, at the macro level, the strategic ineptitude and imperial delusions of our generals, admirals, and senior civilian leaders got no less than 7,057 American sons and daughters and 53,750 wounded in post-9/11 forever wars.

I also definitely fueled the black market – and likely the Taliban – by distorting the local economy with literal bags of cash. I paid corrupt contractors to build defenses and helipads we seemed to need or I’d been ordered to construct. I handed out weekly paychecks to sometimes 1,000 average Afghans in what was called the "CFW" program, but should’ve been called "CFPW" – Cash for Pretending to Work. Naturally, my own light-fraud, waste, and abuse ran only into the hundreds of thousands of dollars – whereas the Pentagon admits to hundreds of billions lost to waste and fraud. All told, Washington has spent a minimum of $6.4 trillion and counting in taxpayer dollars on a 20-year crusade as doomed as the original medieval march of European knights to the Holy Land.

To What End?

And for what? What did the American people – or (dare I ask?) the global populace – get for all that sacrifice in blood, treasure, displacement, and emotional well-being? Nothing really; well, except for a quadrupled national debt, slaughtered and starved foreign children, the worst global refugee crisis since the Second World War, and an American reputation irreparably sullied – in other words we bought ourselves a more brutal and dangerous world.

Accepting that reality, and owning up to my own complicity in all of this cruelty and absurdity, plus realizing the insanity of its planning, farce of its execution, and devastation of its results – frankly, that’s turned my life upside down, damaging both my brain and soul irreparably. I live most of my days shakily suspended between opposing, but equally powerful, poles of apathetic fatalism and endless energy to publicly dissent. After all I’ve seen, done, felt, regretted, and reconsidered, it’s nearly impossible to care about conventions or prioritize the practical in life. Apartments go untidied, cars unregistered, correspondence unsent, sure – but also medical appointments missed, estranged fathers uncalled, and romantic relationships ruined.

On some of the same days I’m almost petulantly rejecting responsibilities both mundane and major, I’ll also read and markup two full books on Africa in a sleepless sitting, give three hour-long interviews on American indecency in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and maybe jaunt off to a street protest or activism meeting.

Of course, this counts as neither an excuse nor a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. I hurt and help people I care about in about equal measure – just as I once did in my military career and across two war zones. Hardly a glowing ethical ledger, that.

Still, I’m trying – for better or worse.

But as for the government of the country I volunteered – also for better or worse – to serve? I feared it hasn’t even tried to do good in the world for a full 20 years.

Our shared nation has an unforgivable amount of blood and obscenity on its hands – enough to tilt the moral scales down to hell in a hand basket.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen