A new generation of West Pointers joins America’s hopeless wars, writes Danny Sjursen.
By Danny Sjursen
Patches, pins, medals, and badges are the visible signs of an exclusive military culture, a silent language by which soldiers and officers judge each other’s experiences, accomplishments, and general worth. In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the “combat patch” on one’s right shoulder — evidence of a deployment with a specific unit — had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars “on terror,” the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn’t boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they’d seen “the elephant.”
We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother — as was mandatory for a 17-year-old — put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, “peace-keeping” deployment in a place like Kosovo.
Sure, the U.S. was then quietly starving hundreds of thousands of children with a crippling sanctions regime against autocrat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, occasionally lobbing cruise missiles at “terrorist” encampments here or there, and garrisoning much of the globe. Still, the life of a conventional Army officer in the late 1990s did fit pretty closely with my high-school fantasies.
You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that the world of future officers at the Academy irreparably changed when those towers collapsed in my home town of New York. By the following May, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear senior cadets on the phone with girlfriends or fiancées explaining that they were heading for war upon graduation.
As a plebe (freshman), I still had years ahead in my West Point journey during which our world changed even more. Older cadets I’d known would soon be part of the invasion of Afghanistan. Drinking excessively at a New York Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, I watched in wonder as, on TV, U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on Iraq as part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s promised “shock-and-awe“ campaign.
Soon enough, the names of former cadets I knew well were being announced over the mess hall loudspeaker at breakfast. They’d been killed in Afghanistan or, more commonly, in Iraq.
My greatest fear then, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that I’d miss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t long after my May 28, 2005, graduation that I’d serve in Baghdad. Later, I would be sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I buried eight young men under my direct command. Five died in combat; three took their own lives. After surviving the worst of it with my body (though not my mind) intact, I was offered a teaching position back at my alma mater. During my few years in the history department at West Point, I taught some 300 or more cadets. It was the best job I ever had.
I think about them often, the ones I’m still in touch with and the majority whom I’ll never hear from or of again. Many graduated last year and are already out there carrying water for empire. The last batch will enter the regular Army next May. Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.
Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.
New Generation of Cadets Serving the Empire Abroad
West Point seniors (“first-class cadets”) choose their military specialties and their first duty-station locations in a manner reminiscent of the National Football League draft. This is unique to Academy grads and differs markedly from the more limited choices and options available to the 80 percent of officers commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Candidate School (OCS).
Throughout the 47-month academy experience, West Pointers are ranked based on a combination of academic grades, physical fitness scores, and military-training evaluations. Then, on a booze-fueled, epic night, the cadets choose jobs in their assigned order of merit. Highly ranked seniors get to pick what are considered the most desirable jobs and duty locations (helicopter pilot, Hawaii). Bottom-feeding cadets choose from the remaining scraps (field artillery, Fort Sill, Oklahoma).
In truth, though, it matters remarkably little which stateside or overseas base one first reports to. Within a year or two, most young lieutenants in today’s Army will serve in any number of diverse “contingency” deployments overseas. Some will indeed be in America’s mostly unsanctioned wars abroad, while others will straddle the line between combat and training in, say, “advise-and-assist” missions in Africa.
Now, here’s the rub: given the range of missions that my former students are sure to participate in, I can’t help but feel frustration. After all, it should be clear 18 years after the 9/11 attacks that almost none of those missions have a chance in hell of succeeding. Worse yet, the killing my beloved students might take part in (and the possibility of them being maimed or dying) won’t make America any safer or better. They are, in other words, doomed to repeat my own unfulfilling, damaging journey — in some cases, on the very same ground in Iraq and Afghanistan where I fought.
Consider just a quick survey of some of the possible missions that await them. Some will head for Iraq — my first and formative war — though it’s unclear just what they’ll be expected to do there. ISIS has been attritted to a point where indigenous security forces could assumedly handle the ongoing low-intensity fight, though they will undoubtedly assist in that effort. What they can’t do is reform a corrupt, oppressive Shia-chauvinist sectarian government in Baghdad that guns down its own protesting people, repeating the very mistakes that fueled the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Oh, and the Iraqi government, and a huge chunk of Iraqis as well, don’t wantany more American troops in their country. But when has national sovereignty or popular demand stopped Washington before?
Others are sure to join the thousands of servicemen still in Afghanistan in the 19th year of America’s longest ever war — and that’s even if you don’t count our first Afghan War (1979-1989) in the mix. And keep in mind that most of the cadets-turned-officers I taught were born in 1998 or thereafter and so were all of three years old or younger when the Twin Towers crumbled.
The first of our wars to come from that nightmare has always been unwinnable. All the Afghan metrics — the U.S. military’s own “measures for success” — continue to trend badly, worse than ever in fact. The futility of the entire endeavor borders on the absurd. It makes me sad to think that my former officemate and fellow West Point history instructor, Mark, is once again over there. Along with just about every serving officer I’ve known, he would laugh if asked whether he could foresee –or even define – “victory” in that country. Take my word for it, after 18-plus years, whatever idealism might once have been in the Army has almost completely evaporated. Resignation is what remains among most of the officer corps. As for me, I’ll be left hoping against hope that someone I know or taught isn’t the last to die in that never-ending war from hell.
My former cadets who ended up in armor (tanks and reconnaissance) or ventured into the Special Forces might now find themselves in Syria — the war President Donald Trump “ended” by withdrawing American troops from that country, until, of course, almost as many of them were more or less instantly sent back in. Some of the armor officers among my students might even have the pleasure of indefinitely guarding that country’s oil fields, which — if the U.S. takes some of that liquid gold for itself — might just violate international law. But hey, what else is new?
Still more — mostly intelligence officers, logisticians, and special operators — can expect to deploy to any one of the dozen or so West African or Horn of Africa countries that the U.S. military now calls home. In the name of “advising and assisting” the local security forces of often autocratic African regimes, American troops still occasionally, if quietly, die in “non-combat” missions in places like Niger or Somalia.
None of these combat operations have been approved, or even meaningfully debated, by Congress. But in the America of 2019 that doesn’t qualify as a problem. There are, however, problems of a more strategic variety. After all, it’s demonstrably clear that, since the founding of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, violence on the continent has only increased, while Islamist terror and insurgent groups have proliferated in an exponential fashion. To be fair, though, such counterproductivity has been the name of the game in the “war on terror” since it began.
Another group of new academy graduates will spend up to a year in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states of Eastern Europe. There, they’ll ostensibly train the paltry armies of those relatively new NATO countries — added to the alliance in foolish violation of repeated American promises not to expand eastward as the Cold War ended. In reality, though, they’ll be serving as provocative “signals” to a supposedly expansionist Russia. With the Russian threat wildly exaggerated, just as it was in the Cold War era, the very presence of my Baltic-based former cadets will only heighten tensions between the two over-armed nuclear heavyweights. Such military missions are too big not to be provocative, but too small to survive a real (if essentially unimaginable) war.
The intelligence officers among my cadets might, on the other hand, get the “honor” of helping the Saudi Air Force through intelligence-sharing to doom some Yemeni targets — often civilian — to oblivion thanks to U.S. manufactured munitions. In other words, these young officers could be made complicit in what’s already the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.
Other recent cadets of mine might even have the ignominious distinction of being part of military convoys driving along interstate highways to America’s southern border to emplace what Trump has termed “beautiful“ barbed wire there, while helping detain refugees of wars and disorder that Washington often helped to fuel.
Yet other graduates may already have found themselves in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia, since Trump has dispatched 3,000 U.S. troops to that country in recent months. There, those young officers can expect to go full mercenary, since the president defended his deployment of those troops (plus two jet fighter squadrons and two batteries of Patriot missiles) by noting that the Saudis would “pay” for “our help.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that basing American troops near the Islamic holy cities of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t exactly end well the last time around – you undoubtedly remember a guy named bin Laden who protested that deployment so violently – the latest troop buildup in Saudi Arabia portends a disastrous future war with Iran.
None of these potential tasks awaiting my former students is even remotely linked to the oath (to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”) that newly commissioned officers swear on day one. They are instead all unconstitutional, ill-advised distractions that benefit mainly an entrenched national security state and the arms-makers that go with them. The tragedy is that a few of my beloved cadets with whom I once played touch football, who babysat my children, who shed tears of anxiety and fear during private lunches in my office might well sustain injuries that will last a lifetime or die in one of this country’s endless hegemonic wars.
A Nightmare Come True
This May, the last of the freshman cadets I once taught will graduate from the Academy. Commissioned that same afternoon as second lieutenants in the Army, they will head off to “serve” their country (and its imperial ambitions) across the wide expanse of the continental United States and a broader world peppered with American military bases. Given my own tortured path of dissent while in that military (and my relief on leaving it), knowing where they’re heading leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. In a sense, it represents the severing of my last tenuous connection with the institutions to which I dedicated my adult life.
Though I was already skeptical and antiwar, I still imagined that teaching those cadets an alternative, more progressive version of our history would represent a last service to an Army I once unconditionally loved. My romantic hope was that I’d help develop future officers imbued with critical thinking and with the integrity to oppose unjust wars. It was a fantasy that helped me get up each morning, don a uniform, and do my job with competence and enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, as my last semester as an assistant professor of history wound down, I felt a growing sense of dread. Partly it was the realization that I’d soon return to the decidedly unstimulating “real Army,” but it was more than that, too. I loved academia and “my” students, yet I also knew that I couldn’t save them. I knew that they were indeed doomed to take the same path I did.
My last day in front of a class, I skipped the planned lesson and leveled with the young men and women seated before me. We discussed my own once bright, now troubled career and my struggles with my emotional health. We talked about the complexities, horror, and macabre humor of combat and they asked me blunt questions about what they could expect in their future as graduates. Then, in my last few minutes as a teacher, I broke down. I hadn’t planned this, nor could I control it.
My greatest fear, I said, was that their budding young lives might closely track my own journey of disillusionment, emotional trauma, divorce, and moral injury. The thought that they would soon serve in the same pointless, horrifying wars, I told them, made me “want to puke in a trash bin.” The clock struck 1600 (4:00 pm), class time was up, yet not a single one of those stunned cadets — unsure undoubtedly of what to make of a superior officer’s streaming tears — moved for the door. I assured them that it was okay to leave, hugged each of them as they finally exited, and soon found myself disconcertingly alone. So, I erased my chalkboards and also left.
Three years have passed. About 130 students of mine graduated in May. My last group will pin on the gold bars of brand-new army officers in late May 2020. I’m still in touch with several former cadets and, long after I did so, students of mine are now driving down the dusty lanes of Iraq or tramping the narrow footpaths of Afghanistan.
My nightmare has come true.
Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris Henriksen.
This article is from TomDispatch.com.
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There are many good reasons for the U.S. to train its officers in the service academies (West Point, Annapolis, and the AFA). The best reason may be that U.S. military officers are taught by men like Sjursen.
America is fortunate that its officer corps have been taught to respect the Constitution and the institutions of our republic.
We would be in grave danger if the officer corps was diluted or superseded by an outsourced privatized cadre of military contractors. The latter military force would be (and are currently) the instruments of an empire and a threat to America.
Thank you for this profoundly moving, excruciating essay.
My father and uncle graduated from West Point. I was born at Cadet Hospital when my father was a tactical officer there. I can still sing all the West Point songs. Growing up in a military family, I didn’t awaken to the tragedy and pointlessness of wars until I was in college and learned about Vietnam.
And I didn’t wake up to the Israel factor in the causation of some of our modern wars until I traveled through Gaza and the West Bank in early 2001 and then began researching the history intensely. I learned quickly – even before the excellent book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt – that some of these wars have been for Israel. The evidence is as strong as the efforts to suppress it.
And as I researched further, I came across considerable evidence that the early pro-Israel movement quite likely was a significant factor in the U.S. entry into World War. (See my book “Against Our Better Judgment.”)
Until we correctly diagnose the causes of these travesties, young people will continue to be sent off to kill and be killed. It’s time for this to end.
Correcting a typo: It appears that the “I” was left out… I meant US entry into World War I. Sources for this are in the book.
Thank you, Alison, for your book Against Our Better Judgment which I read a few years ago.
The quality of evidence and argument was excellent and useful. I highly recommend that book.
I probably was pulled to other things before a complete study, and will review for your observation that “the early pro-Israel movement quite likely was a significant factor in the U.S. entry into World War” II.
I have long wondered why the US countered Hitler by attacking N Africa, perhaps idling while ramping up war production. But it seems bad strategy to chase Italians back to Italy rather than cut them off in the Med. No doubt the Repubs wanted to let Hitler cause maximum damage to the USSR (where his army spent 95% of its WWII division months) before opening a Western front, but that does not explain wasting time in N Africa.
What needs to be pointed out is that these brave and heroic soldiers whom Sjursen lauds enlisted in the military with no one holding a gun to their collective heads where they then were used as pawns to fight America’s endless wars. What is happening today is in direct contrast to what occurred during the Vietnam War when I and about a million other poor bastards ended up in Vietnam very much against our will. And what is also striking is that today relatively few veterans have joined the IVAW [Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War] which is in sharp contrast to what happened during the late 1960s and early 1970s when tens of thousands of military personnel rose up during the GI rebellion to say NO to American imperialism. And even when a soldier returned from Iraq or Afghanistan severely wounded, either in mind or in body, he or she inexplicably did not become a member of the IVAW which goes a long way in demonstrating how brainwashed today’s military are when they refuse to admit to themselves that they had been used for a less than noble cause.
Because of my own studies as a military historian-analyst I can empathize with Major Danny Sjursen (ret.) and his feelings towards his former students and profession.
However, most forget the other side of the coin to this sad story. The majority of Americans are not very bright people and even fewer have the curiosity to pursue in depth studies in history and political events to understand their current situations. This, combined with the lowering of academic standards at such schools as West Point (I believe that scholastically, West Point is now considered rather mediocre) while at the same time allowing entrance only to those who will tow the party line produces the perpetuation of what Major Danny Sjursen (ret.) currently laments.
I wish I could say otherwise but my own experiences in attempting to get people to view alternative, well researched aspects in history so that they could develop an increased sense of critical thinking has met with the same walled off thinking that is now plaguing the cadets who enter military academies.
However, this is not a recent phenomena and did not suddenly emerge after 9-11 as it has been plaguing the US military since its inception. After 9-11 such issues only became more starkly observable.
In this vein, most military historians would be hard pressed to find a period when the United States actually fielded a highly professional military that was well trained, well armed, and used only appropriately for those situations that actually necessitated the use of military force.
This is not to say that the US has not fielded well trained, individual units. However, on the whole, the overall organizations themselves never rose above that of average.
Even the picture that is provided in this article with soldier turning to talk to his Afghan interpreter is demonstration of how poorly trained our soldiers are. If you note, the soldier is turning his back on open area that one assumes he was observing, which could allow a sniper to fire from the far side to hit him.
Even in the Boy Scouts in the 1960s, we were taught you never allow your full body to be in view within an area of observation. You go prone and look to the side of something that may be blocking your view…
My “Bonofides” as what their worth, US Army Vietnam vet, antiwar vet, and one who was priveledged to of talked to relatives and their friends who had been military combat vets from Spanish American to those serving in military today.
When as a youth I was dragged along by my Gramps who had lost a lung to gas just before his 15th Birthday in WWI, those were the days when youths did not talk unless they were asked, and you kept your mouth shut about what your elder males spoke of, so I just listened and learned.
One thing I learned from those old timer Americans, yes they were white, was that none of them believed in the Draft or as they called it “Conscription”, none.
All said no man was truly free if the Government could send you to war at any time or upon any whim it it had.
Shells and shot do not care what your personal beliefs are and neither do the ones who decide upon war or no war, and the Flag they make you wave will not stop bullet or shell.
The Draft or Forced Conscription has not ended as males still register or else find themselves outside of Government employ, and denied government loans, contracts and employ within vast percentage of Government contract suppliers.
Today many if not all are now monitored for terrorist or anti- government sympathys, as being unpatriotic and therefore unreliable in “their hours of needs”.
Another of my bonofides is that I am not anti war, but damn well need to know and understand the why’s and who’s reasons that make war worth joining in.
I believe it was Tennyson???¿¿ spell, who once asked a group of young British society types why they were going to War, and recieved an honest answer of: “Because our Fathers did”,
Hundreds of years later within US that seems as good, if not primary, enough reason to don a uniform and make war.
The brazen socialism of the US military still has a certain lustre in a country with rapidly diminishing opportunities for the working class.
Much appreciation to Consortium News for presenting an article by Danny Sjursen.
Readers here might also appreciate his November 11, 2019 article, “Why we must reclaim ‘Armistice Day,’ over at “The American Conservative”, which begins thus:
“Once upon a time a self-styled progressive American president who had only just won re-election on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” led the US into the midst of the bloodiest worldwide conflict in history.”
“… Wilson’s justification for entering the war as a freedom crusade, as a “war to end all wars,” was, ultimately, than rhetorical cover … in support of one group of empires, the British and French, against another, German and Austrian.”
“Indeed, in a certain sense, it was a bankers’ war.” …
“That may not be the version of First World War history that most Americans learned in elementary or high school. Even less well known is the cynicism and civil liberties suppression of … the Sedition Act … and persecution of journalists under the (still statute law) Espionage Act … the “left” quickly fell in line …”
As well, on the same day, over at “Truthdig”, Sjursen and Colleen Rowley have an article entitled “A Veterans Day Worth Celebrating”, which is most interesting to compare and contrast with the other article mentioned just above.
Looking at the article, here, at Consortium News, several things stand out:
Sjursen speaks to his “high-school
fantasies”, he clearly says the purpose of the those “serving” in the US military is “carrying water for empire”.
He goes on to say such “… missions … will never make this country safer or lead to “victory” of any sort …”
And further, “None of these combat operations have been approved, or even meaningfully debated by Congress. But in the America of 2019 that doesn’t qualify as a problem.”
Clearly, young men and women, and boys and girls are not taught much in the way of honest history in elementary and high school.
When I have asked high school administrators, in several school
districts, in large cities and in university towns, the answer I receive is essentially that all “wars”, from what we USians call the “Vietnam” war, are simply “too controversial” to really judge and discuss in critical fashion because, “it will upset various communities.”
No wonder then, that Danny Sjursen had “fantasies” about the military, for he never encountered a truthful assessment of the history of US wars, of the costs and consequences, of the deceit and propaganda, of the fear-mongering, nor any serious exposure of the Hollywood romanticization of war and of “service” in its role as the “entertainment arm of the Pentagon”, as observed by Frank Zappa.
Doubtless young Danny never heard of Smedley Butler, never read “The Red Badge of Courage”, or any other books, poems, or essays that laid bare the horror and idiocy of wars, especially those of “choice”, waged for hegemony and control of resources belonging to other nations.
So, not only does the MSM “carry water” for war, while extolling “our beautiful weapons”, the educational system merely hands the young all the old hoary myths of US exceptionalism and indispensable-ness, it actively shies away from actually valuing the lives of young, preferring silence to encouraging critical thinking, and euphemistic side-stepping to honest analysis, it too readily accepts kowtowing to “studying” to standardized testing than to testing the veracity of elite group think. A profile in cowardice.
Which then must bring into question the whole notion of “service”.
Do those people in the military, not the generals, admirals, and think-tank-bound elites, but those who actually are but to kill or be killed really “serve” the many?
Or do they really serve empire, oligarchy, elitism, profit, and greed?
What do you think?
Sie sind Söldner ohne es zu wissen!
[They are mercenaries without knowing it]
A a former navy journalist during the Vietnam era–and though the Pentagon Papers would be released during a second Mediterranean deployment–I had known nothing of the lie of that epic war, the last which could conscript a generous variety of young Americans sending them into battle abroad. My brother and I had high school friends who attended the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy. Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a notable. My brother and I were WW2 babies born in the same army hospital as former Secretary of State John Kerry. We would both enlist in the Navy in the late 1960s. Our late father was a reserve officer, a proud Lieutenant Colonel who had worked for an army psychiatrist during WW2 dealing with the damaged men returning from abroad. Much later, after having completed a career in school teaching, I read Chomsky’s “American Power and the New Mandarins.” Then, I understood. As I respond to the worthy piece by Danny Sjursen, US unwholesome presence is being felt in Bolivia where the “Bolivian public has vehemently protested against foreign interests taking priority over the country’s economic well being,” and where a coup might be obtaining. There’s precious gas in the bargain.
Had the British or the French societies ever assessed their respective countries’ bloody imperial histories? No. Will the citizens of the United States reflect? Probably not. The imperial state withers, then morphs into future alliances from which further violence is wrought. And on it goes until the citizenry of societies using military violence as a foreign policy instrument demand otherwise. Spread the word.
Perfect article for Veterans day. Thank you for your service in writing the article as well as many other enlightening works. There is nothing so powerful as the words of an anti war veteran.
I highly recommend his “American History for Truthdiggers” series, in Truthdig; which is an inciteful non-standard history of the US in the tradition of Howard Zinn.
I was in the USAF from 1969 to 1975 and thankfully, from my standpoint, I never had to go to ‘nam. But I have come to conclude that the cancellation of the draft shortly after I went on active duty in 1971 was a serious mistake. Make no mistake, I went in the service solely because my draft number was 19 and I certainly didn’t want to go in the Army for god’s sake. We have separated defending our country from being a part of the military. I certainly wanted nothing to do with that misbegotten disaster known as the Vietnam war (or the American war if you’re Vietnamese). But back then if I’d thought that the US needed defending, I’d have stepped right up. But Vietnam wasn’t defending the country nor has our subsequent invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq (either time), Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, or Somalia had anything to do with defending the US. They have, however, had everything to do with a ready military force that could be flung into the breech without worrying about the reaction of the American people.
Simply and beautifully written. It poignantly notes that none of the wars in at least the last three decades were to defend America but to expand our empire and financially benefit individual Americans. The question of why we are there or there or there is never asked by our media, and when our President clumsily makes that point he is vilified and ridiculed and more often or not, forced to back off. When as an officer in our military and a teacher of future officers he came the to understand America’s “game”, what pain and anguish Danny Sjursen must have felt as he said goodbye to his last class of cadets.