Above Photo: A US infantry soldier sweeps the mountains during a patrol in the Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan. September 23, 2009. (PFC Andrya Hill / United States Army via Wikimedia Commons)
Several new memoirs from disillusioned military veterans reflect on the horrors of war. They’re essential tools for challenging US empire.
Review of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War, by Erik Edstrom (Bloomsbury, 2020); Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body: A Marine’s Unbecoming, by Lyle Jeremy Rubin (Bold Type Books, 2022); and Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, edited by Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen (Metropolitan Books, 2023)
One frequent casualty of war is the confident belief shared by new soldiers that their cause is just and worthy of great personal sacrifice. After Al-Qaeda downed four civilian airliners and caused nearly three thousand deaths on September 11, 2001, US military recruiters were flooded with eager volunteers. Patriotic fervor, coupled with an urge for revenge and a desire to make the world a safer place, motivated many young men and women to enlist.
As the reality of simultaneous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan began to sink in, many participants — like Vietnam veterans before them — became angry, embittered, and disillusioned. Some of them have turned to memoir-writing that debunks the whole costly and disastrous $8 trillion project known as the “global war on terror.” Three excellent new book-length reflections on military training, socialization, and combat duty in the Middle East definitely won’t end up on the reading lists of college-level or junior ROTC programs, or even the US service academies.
But many civilian readers will benefit from the policy critiques and personal insights found in Erik Edstrom’s Un-American; Lyle Jeremy Rubin’s Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body; and Paths of Dissent, an edited collection compiled by Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen, both of whom became historians after serving as career Army officers.
Like Bacevich and Sjursen, Edstrom attended West Point. Afterward, he served as an Army Ranger, an infantry platoon leader and Bronze Star winner in Afghanistan, and a member of Barack Obama’s Presidential Escort Platoon. The grandson of a World War II veteran and product of a middle-class upbringing in a Boston suburb, he was part of the first post-9/11 crop of applicants to the Point, a place where “you couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of shooting, bombing, and invading.” His second thoughts about soldiering started when his first-year class was immediately “isolated, separated from families and support networks” so that, during their “initial indoctrination,” they would be “sheltered from anything that could temper or make us question military dogma.”
Pray And Spray
As part of the process of getting “all-American swimmers, pious altar boys, cauliflower-eared wrestlers, nerdy class treasurers, and Eagle Scouts” ready for eventual deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, West Point cadets were marched in cadence to this edifying chant:
Left, right, left, right, left right KILL! . . . I went to the mosque where all the terrorists pray, I set up my claymore, AND BLEW’ EM ALL AWAY . . . I went to the store where all the women shop, pulled out my machete, AND BEGAN TO CHOP! I went to the playground where all the kiddies play, I pulled out my Uzi AND BEGAN TO SPRAY!
At the academy, Edstrom reports, “I was taught to think about how to win my small part of the war, not whether we should be at war.” Sent to Afghanistan, he soon discovered that “fighting terrorism” was a confounding task for soldiers up and down the “chain of command.” Many of his local foes turned out to be “teenagers or angry farmers with legitimate grievances . . . people tired of our never-ending occupation of their land and contemptuous devaluation of Afghan lives. When I searched my own soul, I couldn’t blame them for fighting back. Had I been in their shoes, I would have done the same.”
Rubin took a more unusual route to becoming a junior officer disillusioned with his own “forever wars” involvement. As we learn in Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body, Rubin was a fervent Zionist in high school and a “pro-war activist” while a Young Republican in college. Skipping service academy training and ROTC at Emory University in Atlanta, Rubin first experienced the Marine Corps as a failed Officer Candidate School contender who became a boot camp grunt. This gave him considerable insight into what he calls the “lance corporal underground” and “camaraderie of the enlisted ranks that adds up to a latent class solidarity”:
As enlisted Marines are fond of remarking, they represent the majority of the military that “works for a living.” The Marine officer corps, on the other hand, is made up of strivers, who’ve learned to compete at an early age and [end up] pitted against other in a cutthroat peer-review process and promotional system that follows. . . . There was an earnestness to the enlisted existence, a conviction of collective duty and sacrifice, however barbaric its realizations, that was never allowed to congeal among the brass.
Rubin was eventually tapped to be a first lieutenant doing signals intelligence work in Afghanistan. This followed a two-month stint at the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he was briefed on a surveillance system “designed to make kill-or-capture missions as user friendly as possible.” As part of his training, Rubin learned about the NSA’s “pattern-of-life analysis of random Afghans at a Top Secret watch floor,” where it was hard not to feel suffused with a “god-like omniscience.”
As Rubin discovered later in the field, the US military’s ability to “eradicate anyone holding an earmarked SIM card” did not prevent tech-savvy Taliban commanders from “switching out their cards as a regular security precaution.” The same “real time” targeting capability was used thousands of times during his deployment “to finish off alleged enemy combatants, many of whom investigative reports have now concluded were civilians.” At the time, however, “battle damage assessments listed virtually all military-aged males as the enemy.”
The disconnect between war on terror propaganda and the reality of meddling in the affairs of a country long resistant to foreign occupation took a painful toll on Edstrom and Rubin. Upon his return to the United States as an Army captain, Edstrom received “thudding back slaps and free beers from well-meaning civilians” for whom the war had become “elevator music.” Meanwhile, he had to live with the memory of soldiers killed and maimed under his command, and the knowledge that terrorism — in the form of “targeted assassinations, bombings, drone strikes, secret ‘black site’ prisons, torture, and wanton civilian murder” — was central to the “counterterrorism” mission. All Rubin wanted to do, after coming home, “was stop the war. And short of that, commiserate with those who, at the very least, could see it.”
The fifteen contributors to Paths of Dissent shared that desire as well and often helped create organizational platforms for educating and agitating against US foreign and military policy. In his essay for the book, Jonathan Hutto describes his path from Howard University to the Navy, where he became a key organizer of the “Appeal for Redress.” This 2006 statement, backed by several thousand active-duty, reserve, and National Guard troops serving in ten countries around the world, called on Congress to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following their military service abroad, both Joy Damiani and Vincent Emanuele found their way to Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. With their guidance and encouragement, Damiani “learned more and more of the truth whose surface I’d barely scratched as a miserable, demoralized soldier” assigned, as an Army public affairs specialist, to “making PR look like news and an unwinnable war look like a victory.” A Marine who refused a third combat deployment to Iraq, Emanuele took his criticism of the war to Capitol Hill, where he testified in 2008 about mistreatment of prisoners and “rules of engagement” that endangered noncombatants.
Pathways To Dissent
Among the other notable voices in this outstanding collection are Matthew Hoh, a dissenter within the Pentagon and the State Department who resigned in protest in 2009, continued his antiwar activism, and ran for US Senate as a Green Party candidate from North Carolina in the most recent midterm election. In another chapter, entitled “Truth, Lies, and Propaganda,” former minor league baseball player Kevin Tillman recalls how he and his brother Pat, a National Football League star, became Army Rangers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat Tillman’s death during a 2004 firefight in Afghanistan was infamously covered up by the Pentagon. As his brother recalls, “the Bush Administration didn’t like the optics of a high-profile soldier like Pat being killed by friendly fire . . . So the government lied to us — his family — and to the American people with a manufactured story about dying by enemy fire and then used him to promote more war.”
In addition to coediting Paths of Dissent, retired Army colonel and former Boston University history professor Bacevich and retired Army major Sjursen both helped launch new vehicles for influencing public opinion about military intervention abroad. Bacevich cofounded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, DC–based think tank that is promoting “ideas that move US foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.” As Bacevich told us when the Quincy Institute was launched in 2019, “I’m optimistic that we’re going to make a dent at least in the foreign policy consensus. That won’t necessarily send the military-industrial complex fleeing or surrendering, but it will have some impact.”
Like Quincy, the nonprofit Eisenhower Media Network, started by Sjursen, is dedicated “to educating Americans about the social, political, and financial destructiveness of the military industrial complex.” Now directed by retired Air Force master sergeant Dennis Fritz, the Media Network has assembled a distinguished roster of former service members who can offer media outlets an alternative perspective often missing from mainstream reporting and commentary on “defense issues.” (Eisenhower experts include Edstrom and his fellow Paths of Dissent contributors Hoh and Dan Berschinksi.)
By making well-credentialed Pentagon critics available to podcasts, TV and radio shows, national magazines, and newspapers, the media network is trying to reach “broad cross-partisan audiences,” rather than just activists already opposed to war and militarism. The authors of Un-American, Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body, and Paths of Dissent have the same vital educational mission, which their readers can assist by sharing (and even having their local libraries order) these important books.