Danny Sjursen goes undercover in Trumplandia and comes back with this reflection on the U.S. president’s loss of loyalty among soldiers and veterans.
By Danny Sjursen
It was June 20th and we antiwar vets had traveled all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of a pandemic to protest President Donald Trump’s latest folly, an election 2020 rally where he was to parade his goods and pretend all was well with this country.
We never planned to go inside the cavernous arena where that rally was to be held. I was part of our impromptu reconnaissance team that called an audible at the last moment. We suddenly decided to infiltrate not just the perimeter of that Tulsa rally, but the BOK Center itself. That meant I got a long, close look at the MAGA crowd there in what turned out to be a more than half-empty arena.
Our boots-on-the-ground coalition of two national antiwar veteran organizations — About Face and Veterans for Peace (VFP) — had thrown together a rather risky direct action event in coordination with the local activists who invited us.
We planned to climb the three main flagpoles around that center and replace an Old Glory, an Oklahoma state flag, and a Tulsa one with Black Lives-themed banners. Only on arrival, we found ourselves stymied by an 11th-hour change in the security picture: new gates and unexpected police deployments. Hopping metal barriers and penetrating a sizable line of cops and National Guardsmen seemed to ensure a fruitless trip to jail, so into the under-attended indoor rally we went, to — successfully it turned out — find a backdoor route to those flagpoles.
Once inside, we had time to kill. While others in the group infiltrated and the flagpole climbers donned their gear, five of us — three white male ex-foot soldiers in America’s forever wars and two Native American women, one a vet herself — took a breather in the largely empty upper deck of the rally. Nervous joking then ensued about the absurdity of wearing the Trump “camouflage” that had eased our entrance. My favorite disguise: a Hispanic ex-Marine buddy’s red-white-and-blue “BBQ, Beer, Freedom” tank top.
The music irked me instantly. Much to the concern of the rest of the team, I’d brought a notebook along and was already furtively scribbling. At one point, we listened sequentially to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” over the arena’s loudspeakers. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would feel about the way the Trump campaign had co-opted their songs. We can guess though, since the late Tom Petty’s family quickly denounced the use of his rock song “I Won’t Back Down” at the rally. I watched an older white woman in a “Joe Biden Sucks, Nancy Pelosi Swallows” T-shirt gleefully dancing to Michael Jackson’s falsetto.
A Contrast in Patriotism
And then, of course, there was the version of patriotism on display in the arena. I’ve never seen so many representations of the Stars and Stripes in my life, classic flags everywhere and flag designs plastered on all manner of attire. Remember, I went to West Point. No one showed the slightest concern that many of the red-white-and-blue adaptations worn or waved strictly violated the statutes colloquially known as the U.S. Flag Code (United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1).
That said, going undercover in Trumplandia means entering a universe in which it’s exceedingly clear that one political faction holds the flag hostage. They see it as theirs — and only theirs. They define its meaning, its symbolism, and its proper use, not to speak of whom it represents. The crowd, after all, was vanilla. (There were more people of color serving beers than cheering the president.)
By a rough estimate, half of the attendees had some version of the flag on their clothing, Trump banners, or other accessories, signaling more than mere national pride. Frequently sharing space with Old Glory were images of (often military-grade) weaponry, skulls (one wearing an orange toupee), and anti-liberal slogans. Notable shirts included: the old Texas War of Independence challenge “Come And Take It!” above the sort of AK-47 assault rifle long favored by America’s enemies; a riff on a classic Nixonian line, “The Silent Majority Is Coming;” and the slanderous “Go To Your Safe Space, Snowflake!;” not to mention a sprinkling of the purely conspiratorial like “Alex Jones Did Nothing Wrong” (with a small flag design on it, too).
The banners were even more aggressive. “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” was a fan favorite. Another popular one photo-shopped The Donald’s puffy face onto Sylvester Stallone’s muscle-bound physique, a machine gun at his hip. That image, of course, had been lifted from the Reagan-era, pro-Vietnam War film “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” a fitting accompaniment to Trump’s classically plagiarized Reaganesque rallying cry “Make America Great Again.” Finally, a black banner with pink lettering read “L G B T.” Above the letters, also in pink, were logos depicting, respectively, the Statue of Liberty, a Gun (an M16 assault rifle), a Beer mug, and a profile bust of Donald Trump. Get it?
For our small group of multi-war/multi-tour combat veterans, it was hard not to wonder whether many of these flag-and-weaponry enthusiasts had ever seen a shot fired in anger or sported Old Glory on a right-shoulder uniform sleeve. Though we were all wearing standard black veteran ball-caps and overtly Trump-friendly shirts, several of us interlopers feared the crowd might somehow guess what we actually were. Yet tellingly, the closest we came to outing ourselves — before later pulling off our disguises to expose black “About Face: Veterans Against The War” shirts — was during the national anthem.
Nothing better exemplified the contrast between what I’ve come to think of as the “pageantry patriotism” of the crowd and the more complex “participatory patriotism” of the dissenting vets than that moment. At its first notes — we were still waiting in the arena’s encircling lobby — our whole team reflexively stood at attention, removed our hats, faced the nearest draped flags, and placed our hands upon our hearts. We were the only ones who did so —until, at mid-anthem, a few embarrassed passersby followed our example. Most of the folks, however, just continued to scamper along, often chomping on soft pretzels, and sometimes casting quizzical glances at us. Trumpian patriotism only goes so far.
Our crew was, in fact, rather diverse, but mostly such vets groups remain disproportionately white and male. In fact, one reason local black and native communities undoubtedly requested our attendance was a vague (and not unreasonable) assumption that maleness, whiteness, and veteran’s status might offer their protests some semblance of protection. Nevertheless, my old boss on West Point’s faculty, retired Colonel Gregory Daddis, summed up the limits of such protection in this phrase: “Patriotic” Veterans Only, Please. And just how accurate that was became violently apparent the moment we “unmasked” at the base of those flagpoles.
Approximately three-dozen combat tours braved among us surely didn’t save our nonviolent team from the instant, distinctly physical rancor of the police — or four members of our group from arrest as the climbers shimmied those flagpoles. Nor did deliberately visible veteran’s gear offer any salvation from the instantly jeering crowd, as the rest of us were being escorted to the nearest exit and tossed out. “Antifa!” one man yelled directly into a Marine vet’s face. Truthfully, America’s “thanks for your service” hyper-adulation culture has never been more than the thinnest of veneers. However much we veterans reputedly fought for “our freedom,” that freedom and the respect for the First Amendment rights of antiwar, anti-Trump vets that should go with it evaporates with remarkable speed in such situations.
Three Strands of Veteran or Military Dissent
Still, the intensity of the MAGA crowd’s vitriol — as suggested by the recent hate mail both About Face and I have received — is partly driven by a suspicion that Team Trump is losing the military’s loyalty. In fact, there’s evidence that something is indeed astir in both the soldier and veteran communities the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the tail end of the Vietnam War, almost half a century ago. Today’s rising doubt and opposition has three main components: retired senior officers, younger combat veterans, and — most disturbingly for national-security elites — rank-and-file serving soldiers and National Guardsmen.
The first crew, those senior officers, have received just about the only media attention, even though they may, in the end, prove the least important of the three. Many of the 89 former defense officials who expressed “alarm” in a Washington Post op-ed over the president’s response to the nationwide George Floyd protests, as well as other retired senior military officers who decried Trump’s martial threats at the time, had widespread name recognition. They included former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General Jim (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and that perennial latecomer, former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. And yes, it’s remarkable that such a who’s-who of former military leaders has spoken as if with one voice against Trump’s abhorrent and inflammatory recent behavior.
Still, a little caution is in order before canonizing a crew that, lest we forget, has neither won nor opposed a generation’s worth of unethical wars that shouldn’t have been fought. Recall, for example, that Saint Mattis resigned his post not over his department’s complicity in the borderline genocide underway in Yemen or pointlessly escalatory drone strikes in Somalia, but in response to a mere presidential suggestion of pulling U.S. troops out of the quicksand of the Syrian conflict.
In fact, for all their chatter about the Constitution, oaths betrayed, and citizen rights violated, anti-Trumpism ultimately glues this star-studded crew together. If Joe Biden ever takes the helm, expect these former flag officers to go mute on this country’s forever wars waged in Baghdad and Baltimore alike.
More significant and unique is the recent wave of defiance from normally conservative low- to mid-level combat veterans, most, though not all, a generation junior to the attention-grabbing ex-Pentagon brass and suits. There were early signs of a shift among those post-9/11 boots-on-the-ground types. In the last year, credible polls showed that two-thirds of veterans believed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “were not worth fighting,” and 73 percent supported full withdrawal from the Afghan War in particular. Notably, such rates of antiwar sentiment exceed those of civilians, something for which there may be no precedent.
Furthermore, just before the president’s controversial West Point graduation speech, more than 1,000 military academy alumni signed an open letter addressed to the matriculating class and blatantly critical of Trump’s urge to militarily crack down on the Black Lives Matter protests. Mainly ex-captains and colonels who spanned graduating classes from 1948 to 2019, they briefly grabbed mainstream headlines with their missive. Robin Wright of the New Yorker even interviewed and quoted a few outspoken signatories (myself included). Then there was the powerful visual statement of Marine Corps veteran Todd Winn, twice wounded in Iraq, who stood for hours outside the Utah state capitol in the sweltering heat in full dress uniform with the message “I Can’t Breathe” taped over his mouth.
At the left end of the veterans’ community, the traditional heart of antiwar military dissent, the ranks of the organizations I belong to and with whom I “deployed” to Tulsa have also swelled. Both in that joint operation and in the recent joint Veterans for Peace (largely Vietnam alumni) and About Face decision to launch a “Stand Down for Black Lives” campaign — encouraging and supporting serving soldiers and guardsmen to refuse mobilization orders — the two groups have taken real steps toward encouraging multi-generational opposition to systemic militarism. In fact, more than 700 vets publicly signed their names (as I did) to About Face’s provocative open letter urging just such a refusal. There were even ex-service members among the far greater mass of unaffiliated veterans who joined protesters in the streets of this country’s cities and towns in significant numbers during that month or more of demonstrations.
Which brings us to the final (most fear-inducing) strand of such dissent: those in the serving military itself. Their numbers are, of course, impossible to measure, since such resistance can range from the passive to the overt and the Pentagon is loath to publicize the slightest hint of its existence. However, About Face quickly received scores of calls from concerned soldiers and Guardsmen, while VFP reported the first mobilization refusals almost immediately. At a minimum, 10 service members are known to have taken “concrete steps” to avoid deployment to the protests and, according to a New York magazine investigation, some troops were “reconsidering their service,” or “ready to quit.”
Finally, there’s my own correspondence. Over the years, I’ve received notes from distraught service members with some regularity. However, in the month-plus since George Floyd’s death, I’ve gotten nearly 100 such messages from serving strangers — as well as from several former West Point students turned lieutenants — more, that is, than in the preceding four years. Last month, one of those former cadets of mine became the first West Point graduate in the last 15 years to be granted conscientious objector status. He will complete his service obligation as a noncombatant in the Medical Service Corps. Within 36 hours of that news spreading, a handful of other former students expressed interest in his case and wondered if I could put them in touch with him.
In a moment of crankiness this January, using a bullhorn pointed at the University of Kansas campus, I decried the pathetic student turnout at a post-Qasem Soleimani assassination rally against a possible war with Iran. And it still remains an open question whether the array of activist groups that About Face and Veterans for Peace have so recently stood in solidarity with will show up for our future antiwar endeavors.
Still, the growth across generations of today’s antiwar veterans’ movement has, I suspect, value in itself — and part of that value lies in our recognition that the problem of American militarism isn’t restricted to the combat zones of this country’s forever wars. By standing up for black lives, pitching tents at Standing Rock Reservation to fight a community-threatening pipeline, and similar solidarity actions, this generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.
As both the Covid-19 crisis and the militarization of the police in the streets of American cities have made clear, the imperial power that we veterans fought for abroad is the same one some of us are now struggling against at home and the two couldn’t be more intimately linked. Our struggle is, at least in part, over who gets to define patriotism.
Should the sudden wave of military and veteran dissent keep rising, it will invariably crash against the pageantry patriots of Chickenhawk America who attended that Tulsa rally and we’ll all face a new and critical theater in this nation’s culture wars. I don’t pretend to know whether such protests will last or military dissent will augur real change of any sort. What I do know is what my favorite rock star, Bruce Springsteen, used to repeat before live renditions of his song “Born to Run”:
Remember, in the end nobody wins, unless everybody wins.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at 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.” His forthcoming book, “Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War” is now available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.
This article is from Tom’s Dispatch.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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Good report but I am convinced that Danny and his group of veterans would have received a worse reception at a Democratic Party rally. Trump voters overwhelmingly support withdrawing troops from the ME. This was Trump policy when he ran for President and this remains the policy of most Trump voters. This opposition to ME wars and US expansionism, unfortunately, is not shared by Congressional Uni-Party elites who, along with MSM and the military financial industrial complex, are sharpening their knives to remove Trump.
Seriously? You are an obvious Trump supporter, I can live with that but lets not muddy the waters by insinuating that Trump and his supporters are troop friendly. They are not or they wouldn’t blindly follow this fool. As for the republicans, lets see who was it that started these never ending wars?
The democrats are no better than their republican brothers and sisters, I’ll give you that, but America isn’t about racist fascists and those two terms very accurately describe Trump and his minions.
A group who obviously are clueless to the nature of their true existence.
Nope, ain’t buying what you are selling here, especially all of your assumptions.
Trump is a chicken hawk’s, chicken hawk, bone spurs and all!
Now, don’t go out unless you have to, don’t touch your face, wash your hands and wear a mask. Thank you very much!
If the draft still existed it would be interesting to see how much public sentiment would be against these never ending wars. With no draft the public has little reason to resistance these engagements.
Everyone seems to forget that we now have what was once called a professional military, one of an all volunteer nature.
Interesting that in practice repeated deployments seem to be breaking the will of volunteers who figure out after 3 or 4 years of going through the revolving door of repeated deployments the experience just isn’t worth it.
What did they learn? Maybe that sacrificing yourself is bull shit when the chicken hawks are getting rich while vets get PTSD, the run around from the Feds for their benefits and live in the streets and prisons of America.
So what happens when these neo-con idiots kill the urge of the well meaning to volunteer for military service?
Now think about that for a minute.
Our chicken hawks will get worse. We no longer have a citizen’s military who will defend the country. That vanished close to a half century ago. Now we have a professional military who will fight the oligarchy’s wars without question. Just as I was exiting the USAF in 1975, Congress was cancelling the draft. Now the only people in the military are ones who want to be there. Just because you want to be there because you need a job doesn’t change anything. That was my father in 1950. After the US Navy in WWII, he got a degree and then couldn’t get a job. He went into the USAF and, remarkably, 20 years later the USAF was going to send me to Vietnam to do the same job he’d done in Korea in 1951, but we got out of ‘nam first. The funny thing is that if the country is actually threatened, you’ll get lots of guys ready to defend it. Imperial wars, not so much.
for your thoughts and activism! Well done! We are in a treacherous moment, how many black lives had to be lost by police violence before we heard protest! And Julian Assange remains tortured in Belmarsh with less comment from this country instigating his torture than the rest of the world. Change has to happen FAST to save his life and any remnant of democracy we think we still have.
Best of luck courage and wisdom to you, keep going!
@ “In the last year, credible polls showed that two-thirds of veterans believed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “were not worth fighting,” and 73 percent supported full withdrawal from the Afghan War in particular. Notably, such rates of antiwar sentiment exceed those of civilians, something for which there may be no precedent.”
Indeed, Tulsi Gabbard’s supporters were, according to the polls, nearly all veterans and active duty soldiers. And she was running primarily on ending our regime-change wars.
I am a bit confused about this. It is 45 who got punished by NWO for trying to get troops out of Afghanistan and Syria. How do U.S. people deal with this? The DNC axis of evil has fund-raisers in private wine caves. How does one even get their attention? The DNC/CIA axis does not care about ordinary people whatsoever. It is their tiny bubble of uncaring that feeds the rest of it, along with their passing constant items of legislation that do the exact opposite of what the legislation pretends. It is brave to resist the NWO. People certifiably die for resistance. Remember Dan Best, for example, who beat himself to death with a blunt instrument in a classic, early-morning event, after he stopped a gag on pharmacists?
Good work walking the talk. I used to wonder when I first started reading Danny’s stuff, why so few who speak out? So it’s heartening to hear how the numbers are growing.
Reminds me of the excellent documentary “Sir, No Sir”. We disheveled longhairs who walked around in public back in the day became scapegoats for Nixon’s “silent majority”. It took active duty military finally to reverse the tide of public opinion about Viet Nam.
It’s not surprising to me that Sjursen saw through the thin veneer of “patriotism w/plastered flags” display by chickenhawks in OK dokeland. With two right wings, those birds never could fly for shit.
Mostly I’m grateful that there are vets who stand for all of us to speak our minds freely in dissent of what we see as despicable policies & policy makers. I guess I still can’t quite grasp why so many, in and out of the military, only pay lip service to that most fundamental right. Maybe because the “mental” part has been overshadowed by a “fund” part that rules ever more ruthlessly?
Good quote from Springsteen. It brought to mind a similar line “…none of us are free, when one of us is chained, None Of Us Are Free”, a song covered by Solomon Burke w/the Blind Boys. Too damn many chains still around.
As the saying goes, keep your eyes on the horizon because it’s an uphill climb from here. And may the road rise up to meet you.
I have come to be a 99% supporter of President Trump. It’s fair to say every time he has announced a withdrawal somewhere within a week there’s some media report it just can’t happen because A, B, C and Joe blow is also paying XYZ to kill our troops. President Trump isn’t the problem, everyone around him is. The left and right just can’t afford peace or they don’t get mega donations. So let’s all pull together in the right direction and remove the real corrupt politicians, super pacs etc.
Great reporting and true bravery, Mr. Sjursen. I have an entirely irrelevant question which either he or another reader can answer. All of my life, until recently, it was the University of Kentucky (UK) and Kansas University (KU). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intentional, but it made it easy to tell what college people were referring to. And, it also was irritating when I read, especially in high- class publications, about the “University of Indiana”. No. It is Indiana University. I wonder how people would react if they ever saw “University of Yale” someplace. Laugh at the ignorance? That is not our reaction. Ours is resent the disrespect- the implication that it wasn’t even worth looking up. Ok, I’m back. Now, however, I am seeing both UK and KU used, and by people who I am sure know. Is it now two separate institutions for some weird purpose? Did Kansans just get sick of correcting people and go with the flow? A piece of trivia with which I would rather occupy my mind than the the sad reality so well briefed above. Thank you.
Great write up. Hope we can get you to Eugene one of these days.
Susan. Planet VS Pentagon
I wish that something like this would have appeared during the past two administrations. Alas, no awakening until now.
It’s not “an awakening” it’s a propaganda tool being waged by the very politicians who want war. Citizens are blaming Trump but check these quick facts. North Korea sabotage (Bolton), Afghanistan withdrawal sabotage (NYT this last time), Iraq, Iran etc. sabotage, the entire deep state, Venezuela, deep state. Every time Trump mentions troop withdrawal, summit, dialogue etc the entire sink gets dumped on the plans. If the people actually backed Trump, ie raised hell at the politicians screaming we have to stay in country so I can get more money from mega donors! I bet we’d be closer to getting troops home than we are.
That a strong majority of vets believe those wars were not worth fighting says it all. Those are the opinions I respect. I was very worried also that we were going to war with Iran after that assassination. And I still worry that is the next war that all of the same architects of the Middle East wars have been wanting. The Zionists are still all in power and with Israel pushing for us constantly to go to war with Iran, it’s always going to be something we have to fight against. I think everybody must keep in mind, that those wars from our perspective have been horrible failures and in vain. But from the perspective of Israel and Zionists, and Saudis, our military did what they were asked to do in a great, victorious successful job. I mean, we were told that the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, I still don’t understand how that fits into our last 19 years of foreign policy. We do have the most powerful and best military, and best-funded, and the results of these wars have been extremely successful from the perspective of Israel, but they want one more big war to take out Iran to finish the job for their total Middle East dominance. I really don’t know who is more dangerous as to that risk, Trump or Biden. And any rational person must be afraid of the possibility of war with Russia, and it’s sickening that it’s the Democratic Party stoking that possibility to an extremely dangerous degree. The most powerful voice in Congress is telling Putin that all roads lead to him, with no particular reason why that is so. I just want all of our troops to come back home and be safe, and only put in harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary to defend our borders. The best way to heal from an injury, physical and mental is to believe in the cause, that it was a necessary sacrifice. As the most experienced and respected voices in this critical time, I hope that veterans who are for peace are allowed to express their voices to the country, this is what a patriot is supposed to be about, loving OUR country and wanting peace in our country, not never-ending foreign wars that only make us less safe.
oBOMBa destroyed the Anti-War Movement. When he got in the White House all of them began going to Brunch instead of Peace/Anti-War marches.