I’m one of the lucky ones. Leaving the madness of U.S. Army life with a modest pension and all of my limbs intact feels like a genuine escape. Both the Army and I knew it was time for me to go. I’d tired of carrying water for empire and they’d grown weary of dealing with my dissent and with footing the bill for my PTSD treatment.
I entered West Point in July 2001, a bygone era of relative peace, the moment, you might say, before the 9/11 storm broke. I leave an Army that remains, remarkably, engaged in global war, patrolling an increasingly militarized world.
In a sense, my early retirement is an ignominious end to a once-promising career. Make no mistake, I wanted out. I’d relocated 11 times in 18 years, often to war zones, and I simply didn’t have another deployment in me. Still, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I mourn the loss of my career, of the identity inherent in soldiering, of the experience of adulation from a grateful (if ill-informed) society.
I recognize that there’s a paradox at work here: The Army and the global war on terror made me who I am. Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in particular turned a budding neocon into an unabashed progressive, an insecure aspiring dealer in violence into a pacifist, or as near to that as a former military man can get. What the Army helped me become is someone whom, in the end, I don’t mind gazing at in the mirror each morning.
Should I thank the Army then? Maybe so. It’s hard, though, to thank a war machine that dealt death to so many for making me who I am. And no matter how much I tell myself I was different, the truth is I was complicit in it all.
I wonder whether something resembling an apology, rather than a statement of pride in who I’ve become, is the more appropriate valediction. Some peers, even friends, may call me a heretic — a disgruntled former major airing dirty laundry — but I plan to keep explaining that we are engaged in Orwellian forever wars that professional foot soldiers make possible while the rest of the country goes to work, tweets, shops and sleeps (in every sense of the word).
I am not sorry to leave behind the absurdity I witnessed.
Farewell to the generals who knew tactics but couldn’t for the life of them think strategically. Who were unwilling or unable to advise policymakers about missions that could never be accomplished. Who shamelessly traded in their multi-starred uniforms for six- and seven-figure gigs on the boards of corporations that feed the unquenchable appetite of the military-industrial beast.
So long, too, to the chauvinism in the senior ranks that asserts a messianic American right to police the globe. Farewell to the faux intellectualism of men like former Gen. David Petraeus who have never seen a problem for which improved counterinsurgency tactics wasn’t the answer and are incapable of questioning the efficacy of force, intervention and occupation as ways to alter complex societies for the better.
Goodbye to the devotees of American exceptionalism who filled the Army’s ranks, and to the hypercapitalism and Ayn Randian conservatism among officers in what is the nation’s most socialist institution. Godspeed to the often-hypocritical evangelical Christianity and the rampant Islamophobia infusing the ranks. Ciao to the still-prevalent patriarchy and homophobia that affects everyone in uniform
Ta-ta to officers who put “duty” above “ethics,” and to the troops who regularly complained that the Army’s Rules of Engagement were too strict — as if more brutality, bombing and firepower (with less concern for civilians) would have brought victory instead of stalemate.
Sayonara to the adrenaline junkies and power-obsessed freaks atop so many combat units, folks who lived for the violence, the rush of nighttime raids without a thought for their often counterproductive and bloody consequences. It’s a relief to leave them behind as they continue to feed the insurgencies the U.S. battles far faster than they kill “terrorists.”
Toodle-oo to the vacuous “thanks-for-your-service” compliments from civilians who otherwise ignore soldiers’ issues, foreign policy and our forever wars.
Maybe it’s hopeless for a former Army major to fight American militarism. Still, I plan to keep attacking in that lost cause. I’ll be here, speaking up, as a counterpoint to a system that demands compliance. And here’s the truth of it: I’m not alone in my views; as supportive texts and e-mails to me have made clear, there are more silent dissenters in the ranks than you might imagine. I hope more serving officers and troops gather the courage to speak their minds and tell Americans the score about our brutal, hopeless adventurism.
I was one of them, an obsequious grunt at the pointy end of the spear fashioned by a warlike government ruling over an apathetic citizenry. But no longer. The burdensome, the beautiful, the banal and the horrific — that was my war story and it is still the nation’s. Goodbye to all that, and hello to what’s next.
Danny Sjursen retired from the Army in February, after tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and teaching history at West Point. He is the author of “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Twitter: SkepticalVet. Podcast: “Fortress on a Hill.” He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times. A longer version of this essay appears at TomDispatch.