Shortly after Truthdig columnist Danny Sjursen left the Army, where he spent 18 years on active duty and rose to the rank of major, he sat down with Editor in Chief Robert Scheer for an interview about life after the military and a discussion about the conclusions he drew throughout his military career.
Sjursen, who attended West Point and did several tours in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, opened up to Scheer about how leaving the institution where he spent most of his adult life has allowed him to finally be completely frank about his experiences, in his columns as well as in his recent book, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.”
“I’d like to think that I was always bold on active duty,” Sjursen tells Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” “but the reality is that I was censoring myself. You know, there is a degree of fear and harassment, and it’s very passive-aggressive stuff. But the book was a labor of love [that] tears apart the notion of American exceptionalism that brought us to Iraq, to a folly.”
Now, as Sjursen pursues a Ph.D and a career as a writer while adapting to his new life and grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, the former soldier is still profoundly troubled by his experiences at war, not only as he led soldiers to their deaths, but also as he watched U.S. forces devastate Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although he went to Iraq thinking the trouble with the war was the way it was being fought, he left with a very different impression of the conflict.
“What I saw happen to the Iraqi people [haunted me more] than what happened to my soldiers,” Sjursen says. “Not only the bodies in the street, not only the civil war that was being waged, but I found that more than 90% of the very friendly Iraqis … Sunni and Shia, they all told me that life was better under Saddam. … That was a big turning point, when I started to say, ‘Wait a second. You know, forget about fighting the war poorly; we shouldn’t be fighting this war at all.’ ”
Recounting the many ways the U.S. created worse conditions for Iraqis after the death of Saddam, Sjursen explains that the nearly half a million Iraqis who have died since the early 2000s were not killed directly by American soldiers, but by the unleashing of a “Pandora’s box of sectarian civil war in what was once a secular society.”
The war in Afghanistan, while fought under different pretenses, was no less brutal or foolish than the Iraq War, in Sjursen’s eyes.
“The reality is, any chance of victory in Afghanistan was over the minute–and this only took weeks—the minute after we switched from a counterterrorism strategy, a surgical, law enforcement-type attack on the al-Qaida system—the minute we switched from that to nation-building, counterinsurgency and occupation, the war was already lost.”
But the blood on Sjursen’s hands, which he remains conscious of long after his last deployment, is on all Americans’ hands, as the Truthdig columnist points out. And with no end in sight to what have been dubbed our “forever wars,” it’s unlikely we’ll be able to wash our hands clean of these ongoing tragedies any time soon.
Listen to Sjursen and Scheer as they talk about everything from WikiLeaks to the accumulating failures of America’s leaders, at home and abroad. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Scheer Intelligence: Can We Learn Anything From Our Forever Wars?
Radio Interview: https://www.kcrw.com/embed-player?api_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.kcrw.com%2Fculture%2Fshows%2Fscheer-intelligence%2Fcan-we-learn-anything-from-our-forever-wars%2Fplayer.json&autoplay=false#
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s someone–this is sort of the second part of an interview that began, oh, months ago, when Major Danny Sjursen was active duty in the Army. And he had spent 18 years of his life, ever since signing up at West Point–being admitted at West Point, a kid from Staten Island, a basically poor, working-class background. A lot of firemen and cops in his community and family. And affected by 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center. But he went to West Point before 9/11. And people just thought, well, you know, god, they’re letting poor kids in there now, because the congressmen and the bankers, they don’t want their children to grow up to be lieutenants or even majors; he became a major eventually. So the military academy is actually more merit-based now than it might have once been. And so welcome, Major Sjursen. How are you?
Danny Sjursen: Oh, I’m great. Thanks for having me again, Bob.
RS: OK. And the reason I wanted to talk to you today is that, first of all, it’s two months now since you’ve been an active duty major. It’s something you’ve done, I’m sure, your whole life, adult life. And you were a lieutenant, you were in Iraq for a year and a half or so; you were in Afghanistan, and you were deployed other times. How many times were you deployed?
DS: Ah, just two combat deployments and then some short tours for–
RS: Yeah, but in many other countries and so forth–
DS: Of course, yeah, absolutely.
RS: And you’re a father of two children; you’ve had an interesting life. And you wrote a book about the surge in Iraq called “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” And it’s a really terrific book that people can get, if they want to go online or find some bookstore that has it. And what it really—you know, I was going to start with something from the book, and you can help me here. It was a quote from Graham Greene: “Innocence is a kind of insanity.” Graham Greene, the great writer, great novelist. And he wrote “The Quiet American,” which is about innocence as a form of [insanity], how we got involved in Vietnam. And your book is really an unmasking of the conceit of innocence. Somehow Americans go off to war, they’re always intending to do good, they’re always going to make it a better world. And generally, they screw it up horribly, with very few rare exceptions. And that’s really the thesis here, isn’t it? And so why don’t you give us that overall view. And are you bolder in that view now that you’re not active duty, that you’re out of the military for the first time in 18 years? How does it feel?
DS: It feels good. I’d like to think that I was always bold on active duty, but the reality is that I was censoring myself. You know, there is a degree of fear and harassment, you know, and it’s very passive-aggressive stuff. But you know, the book was a labor of love. It started out as an essay, an angry essay that I wrote to Senator Lindsey Graham because I didn’t like something he said on C-SPAN, and it became a book. But you’re right that there are sort of the—the theme of innocence runs through it. And it’s two tracks; it’s my own innocence as someone who was, you know, naive enough to believe not only that the Iraq War might be valuable and necessary, but also that the military was just ultimately a force for good in the world. But the other innocence is a collective, national innocence. Only such a collective, national innocence that borders on insanity, as the quote says, could have allowed us to invade Iraq. Probably the catastrophic blunder of the 21st century, if not even larger than that. And I don’t even think we understand the scale of what a disaster we’ve created, because the aftershocks are–they’re sometimes worse than the initial earthquake. And we haven’t seen the last of it. So the book is an unmasking of my own innocence, which very quickly was rattled. By my third or fourth month in Iraq, I was anti-war. I mean, I was posting anti-war poems from World War I on the door to my room in Iraq, you know, provocatively. My little protest, you know, before I was told to pull them down. But you know, that’s what the book does. It tears apart the notion of American exceptionalism that brought us to Iraq, to a folly.
RS: The day that Julian Assange was arrested, you know, in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and they hauled him out of there. And you know, he’s been charged, and the charge is conspiring to commit computer intrusion. And what they’re doing is basically getting him on something they think they can nail him on; they don’t want to, this is his helping Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, and be able to crack a computer code preventing entry into some data trove. But they didn’t—but at that moment in time, Bradley Manning had already released a million documents. They were fairly low-level secrecy; you can discuss that. But really, very revealing information, unquestionably, in my mind, that the public had a right to know, and a need—a need to know. Including how we shot up civilians, and so forth. And one reason why I wanted particularly to do this interview with you today is, you know, when people release these secrets, they’re always told they’re putting the troops in harm’s way. And you’re not, you’re dishonoring and threatening the troops. Well, you were a young lieutenant at that point, or had been a few years before. You were involved in the surge. And the documents that Chelsea Manning released really affected the kinds of activities you were in. You were in constant patrol in Baghdad, one end to the other, with your unit of what, 20 soldiers?
DS: Yeah, give or take, 20 soldiers.
RS: Half of whom ended up being killed or seriously injured, some of whom committed suicide. And I want to ask you, as the grunt on the ground—now, you were a lieutenant; you were a West Point graduate. You end up later in life teaching at West Point; you end up being a major before your retirement two months ago. But what did you think about that release of documents by Manning through WikiLeaks?
DS: You know, I had a very provocative view of it, in the sense that I thought it was a national service that he’d, you know, that he’d committed. My peers were horrified. They believed the myth that the troops were put in harm’s way by what he released, which was patently false. The people who were doing harm to the troops were the people who were lying, the people who were creating the secrecy. That’s what damaged the troops: the people that brought us to Iraq. One of the things that was most staggering for me was, in that million documents that then-Bradley Manning released, what there was was this evidence that we, the soldiers on the ground, knew that we were policing an internal, sectarian civil war. So in 2006 and ’07, dozens and sometimes hundreds of civilians would kill one another, right? Sunni versus Shia, in the middle of the night. And in the morning, we would gather the bodies and count them and report them. But that was all classified, at a low level; just secret, not top secret or anything. But at the same time that was going on, when we were using the words “civil war,” when we were witnessing a civil war, our leaders–General Casey, who was at the time the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, and senior defense officials, Rumsfeld, et cetera—they were telling the press, no, it’s not a civil war. We won’t use the words “civil war.” And I think largely that’s because they did not want to admit to the chaos that had broken out, that we had lost control, if we ever had it. That we had patently, forever, lost control of Baghdad. And of, really, the whole country, but especially the capital city. And you know, I was offended by that lie, because I lived the civil war. You know, I lived the multipronged war, where they were both attacking us and attacking each other. And that the country was both literally and figuratively on fire in late 2006, and I was offended by the lie. And I thought it was a brave decision. And, of course, whistleblowers were out of fashion, as you said earlier today, Bob. And obviously, he was crucified–she–and was given a 30-year sentence. And my peers thought that was just about right. Some of them thought, you know, she should have been executed.
RS: “She” being Chelsea Manning. And Julian Assange published these documents. And Washington Post, The Guardian, the British paper, papers all over the world, printed them. And interestingly enough, Julian Assange is not in the position that Daniel Ellsberg was in when he released the Pentagon Papers, a trove of—a history study, really; you’re a historian, I should point out you’re about to get your doctorate. The military sent you to graduate school in preparation of being an instructor at West Point. And now you’re at the end of your dissertation, and will be doctor, Dr. Danny Sjursen, in a couple of months. And the really interesting thing here is who controls history, who controls knowledge, who controls truth and true news? And fake news is really, in a way, the norm, it seems to me, if we talk about Vietnam, we talk about Iraq, and so forth. And without the whistleblowers, we don’t even get a crack—a crack there where the light can come through. But you were on the ground, and when you talk about it being—I mean, look, after all, we had supposedly gone to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction; that was a lie. And it was a lie that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11; he didn’t. You know, and another lie is that somehow this was a backward country with no redeeming virtue–well, we managed to make it a far more unlivable, miserable country than it had ever been. Why don’t you talk—you got an education there. And now you’re in this, even though you’re going to be Dr. Danny Sjursen, you hopefully will be successful as a writer about history and a professor. And you, you know, you’re honorably discharged as a major from the military. But you’re a deeply troubled person by what you saw and experienced. Why don’t you—I mean, tell us the consequence, not just for you, but also for the Iraqi people.
DS: You know, I got there with just a little bit of idealism left. I had read Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco,” so I was aware of the failures early in the war. But I think, at the time, I was in the mainstream of military officers, in the sense that I thought the war was being fought poorly, but I did not necessarily think that the war was wrong in itself. And, of course, I quickly came to believe that it was. And the best way, Bob, to talk about it is, you know, what I saw happen to the Iraqi people. Because more, believe it or not, than what happened to my soldiers, that haunted me. Not only the bodies in the street, not only the civil war that was being waged, but I found that more than 90% of the very friendly Iraqis–not attacking us, as far as I knew, you know; talking to me, drinking chai with me, thousands of them. And they all started telling me—Sunni and Shia, OK, and Saddam had been pretty brutal to the Shia—but Sunni and Shia, they all told me that life was better under Saddam. And they would say, we like you just fine; you’re a nice guy. But we want you out of here. I mean, look what you’ve done. You know, this is why we can’t have nice things. I mean, they really thought we had destroyed their country. Because we had. We had. So for me, that was a big turning point, when I started to say, “Wait a second. You know, forget about fighting the war poorly; we shouldn’t be fighting this war at all.” We’ve brought disaster–to the tune, now, most estimates, half a million dead, right. Mostly civilians, in Iraq. Did we—you know, we didn’t directly kill all of them. But we unleashed the Pandora’s box of sectarian civil war in what was once a secular society. Men and women holding hands, drinking in cafes—that’s all over with now. People get their heads cut off for less. That really shocked me. And then, of course, there was the idealism of my soldiers, who, you know, they were just fighting for each other, as the cliché goes. But it’s true.
RS: A serious student of the course—are we not up against the incompatibility of empire and republic? We were founded as a republic. As a historian, you know, we began to betray that promise from the day of our founding, or even before, when we were striving to be an independent country. What about this tension? Where are we now in empire land? And isn’t, really, this what the whistleblowers have been revealing, the consequence of empire?
DS: There are precious few whistleblowers about military issues, as you mentioned. And that is a shame, because what Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Chelsea Manning should be is a splash of cold water, a bucket of cold water, on the face of the collective American people. And yet it’s not, for the most part. We’re willing to accept what our military does in our name. We’re willing to accept that the United States has a system where the president is essentially a dictator in foreign policy. You’re right that it’s the only institution where we do not, you know, expect whistleblowers to provide that check, that truth that you mentioned. And it’s very, very disturbing. The bottom line is, you know, from a historical perspective, to answer your question, we are—we are long, long down the road of this empire. I mean, absolutely, far down that road. The republic, the ostensible republic, is dying. And empires tend, not only does it not end well when the empire comes home—as it always does; the empire always comes home, Britain, Rome, you name it. These countries on the way out, on the decline, that’s when they act the most absurd. Things go really poorly. They do not behave well. And what you’re looking at today is a United States of America that is not behaving well in the world, because it is in, you know, the twilight of its empire. And it may take a long time before the empire collapses, but in the interim, we are going to act poorly. And as long as we have an all-volunteer force, as long as a, you know, a select half of a percent—the other 1%, as I like to call them. As long as we give it out to a military caste, and it doesn’t Main Street, especially in the wealthy communities, then this will continue indefinitely, and America will continue to behave badly, as the empires often historically do.
RS: In what sense are we an empire? Because some people think, “Oh, you’re just throwing around rhetoric.” Now, we do happen to live in a time when more people are open to the possibility that something has gone awry, because Donald Trump is president, and he has the aura of an emperor. And, you know, the whole notion of, his notion of American greatness is a notion of power over others, and being able to dictate and fire lesser people, and dictate the terms of agreements, and they’ll do this, they’ll pay for the wall, these Mexicans, and the Chinese will bow to our will, and et cetera, et cetera. So we actually have an [emperor], but most people blame that on Julian Assange, or many people do, or on WikiLeaks, or something. They don’t seem to want to come to grips with the idea that maybe, maybe Trump is the man for the time of empire. And this is what emperors do, and sometimes they’re a little bit wacky, and sometimes they’re a little bit out of control, or more so. In what sense are we—you’re a historian; in what sense is this accurate labeling?
DS: You know, we—we are an empire. And I’m going to explain why, and then I’m going to talk about Trump a little. I have a complex relationship with my old commander in chief, my old chum. You know, we have 800 military bases in 80 countries; on any given day, we are bombing at least seven countries, some days more, if there’s something going on in Africa. We have a defense budget as large as the next seven countries’ combined. We have, you know, the majority of the world’s aircraft carriers, 10 times more than the Russians and the Chinese. We have divided the planet into regional commands—CENTCOM, Northcom, Southcom—where our four-star generals in charge of these commands are essentially Roman proconsuls, right? Ruling over—and much more powerful than our diplomats. Our diplomats are not taken seriously anymore; it’s the military that gets the business done. And you know, finally, we are unique. We are exceptional. Exceptional in the sense that we are the most imperial of all the places on the planet. Because there are 77 total foreign bases split between all the other 200 countries of the world, and we have some 800. So yes, certainly, we’re are an empire, by any stretch of the imagination. Now, our people, ironically, like to think we’re not. But you’re right that people are becoming a little more open to that. Now, Trump is—I think you’re correct—the reason why people are starting to accept that we might be an empire. But I would argue that Trump is not such an anomaly. He is a man for his times. You know, the question you have to ask in America, when it comes to the popularity contest that we call the presidential election every four years—that entertaining bit, right, of the blue team and the red team–you have two choices. And you will always have two choices. And the choice in the two major parties is between, do you like coarse emperors? Do you want your empire to be coarse and absurd and a little bit buffoonish? Or do you like your empire and your emperors to be polite? Because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would have been polite emperors. But the reality is, if anything, Donald Trump questions the empire at times—doesn’t always follow through—more than a Barack Obama, more than a Hillary Clinton or a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton, for that matter. I mean, the question is not whether we’re an empire; it’s how do you like your imperialism? And you have two choices. Well, “liberal,” in quotes, society prefers polite emperors. And so they try to get them elected, and they can’t accept that a coarse emperor, like Donald Trump, is currently in charge.
RS: Well, one of those polite emperors was Lyndon Johnson. In fact, most of the more aggressive emperors have been Democrats, but put that aside for a minute. And then you’re raising an interesting question: Is this debate really over manners? Because, after all, Lyndon Johnson—and then came Richard Nixon—but together, I think a conservative figure would be that 4 or 5 million people lost their lives. Maybe more, certainly whole societies were disrupted. Certainly Barack Obama, to take the most pleasant of our emperors, if we’re going to use that language, you know, every morning would decide who to fire a drone attack on. Maybe it’s a wedding, maybe it’s a family living somewhere. And you served, in your 18 years in the military, under mild-mannered emperors and under more aggressive and buffoonish emperors. What was the difference on the ground?
DS: There was almost none. Certainly under George W. Bush we pursued more conventional military means. So there were more soldiers on the ground; there were more tours, right. Because there was more people there, therefore you deployed slightly more often. But what we were doing—
RS: But not as much as under Lyndon Johnson.
DS: No, no. By no means as much as under Lyndon Johnson. And of course, in reality, what we were doing on the ground was precisely the same. I mean, we were bringing instability, and we were dealing death. Usually from above, with the polite people like, you know, Barack Obama. He preferred the, you know, that killing. And it’s a myth. I mean, the myth that this is somehow a controlled killing, it’s precision-guided—of course, it’s not, it never is, and it probably never will be. But the big answer to your question is, very little changed on the ground for those of us carrying water for the empire, whether we had George W. Bush or Barack Obama or even Donald Trump.
RS: Well, spell that out, because most of us are not on the ground. In my own situation as a journalist, I’ve been parachuted into a few war zones, and can sense the mayhem. And some of my colleagues stayed much longer; I’m not going to take that away from them. But still, we are voyeurs to violence. You were dealing violence, right? And you were receiving, on the receiving end of violence. You know, this is not a video game. Most of us accept war as a video game now. The [thing] about the drone attacks, we see somebody in Omaha killing somebody in Baghdad or someplace, and we assume they’re accurate, we assume they know what they’re doing. That’s what Barack Obama did, right? He approved every one of those. What’s the reality on the ground?
DS: The reality on the ground is much different. It’s much more brutal, it’s much more of what you’d expect of a conventional war. I’ll give you one really good example that I think demonstrates this. During the, quote, surge in Iraq of 2007, when we put all these extra soldiers on the ground, and we flooded the neighborhoods, and we lived among the Iraqis, and we fought every day, and we received and dealt violence—you know, that was a George W. Bush thing. And many of us, like myself, were naive enough to believe that when a Democrat won—and I liked Obama at the time—that it would change. That we would no longer think that we can fix these societies, and unzip the American inside every Arab, or inside every Afghan–that that would change. But it did not. Because Barack Obama applied that very same model to Afghanistan, and we had ourselves a surge there. This was the Obama surge. And the reality is, the figures leading these surges didn’t change at all. Because Petraeus was the commander of both surges, at least after Stanley McChrystal was fired. So it’s the same folks doing the same things, going on the same inane patrols, trying to secure or pacify or win the hearts and minds–you pick. But it usually means use violence in order to convert them to our way of life, or whatever we perceive to be our way of life. And unlock the American inside each of them. So no, it didn’t change very much at all. Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was equally as brutal and equally as wasteful as George W. Bush’s. And if we are to have another surge, and it’s the favorite tool now of generals, you can be sure that under Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, if she had won, it’ll be largely the same.
RS: So you—we haven’t talked much about Afghanistan. Iraq made no sense whatsoever. But the argument somehow, because we—9/11 had been launched at least logistically from Afghanistan, the planes that flew into the World Trade Center—that that was defensible. And we have an image—in order to do all this, the mannered style requires, you know, that the enemy be defined as thoroughly loathsome. Another Hitler, in the case of Saddam Hussein; the analogies have to be there so there’s no possibility of negotiation. The irony in Afghanistan, where you spent quite a bit of time in a very dangerous situation, is we’re actually now—Donald Trump, amazingly, is accepting, negotiating with the Taliban. Something that could have been done, you know, weeks after 9/11. I mean, you know, who are these Taliban? What was the—how did they get there, how did fanaticism come to Afghanistan, which was not a center of Islamic fanaticism? Mostly paid for by Saudi Arabia; 15 of the hijackers were traveling on legal papers from Saudi Arabia. You know, so suddenly—wait a minute, we can talk to the Taliban? You had a lot of familiarity. What was Afghanistan all about?
DS: Well, Afghanistan is, you know, what Barack Obama called the “good” war. Remember, he was selling us the idea during the campaign in 2007 and ’08, that there’s a bad war—the stupid war, in Iraq—and then there’s the good war, the one that we have to win. The reality is any chance of victory in Afghanistan was over the minute—and this only took weeks—the minute after we switched from a counterterrorism strategy, a surgical, law enforcement-type attack on the al-Qaida system—the minute we switched from that to nation-building, counterinsurgency and occupation, the war was already lost. And you’re right that it’s going to end—I promise you, it is going to end with a negotiated settlement, and the Taliban will still have their guns and will still be a force of essentially militiamen. And they might take over half the country, or maybe the whole thing. And you’re right that that could have, that negotiation could have been done from a position of more strength, mind you, in December of ’01, or in February of ’02. And we would have had the same thing. And you know, this happened in Vietnam as well; Richard Nixon prolongs the war for four or five years, and then he actually accepts terms that are about the same that were on offer from the North Vietnamese, you know, in January of 1969. Now, in the interim, I think the number, if I’m not mistaken, is 20,532 American soldiers died, more than a third of our casualties coming after it was no longer necessary, if it ever was. The same has happened in Afghanistan. In this case, 95 to 98% of the Americans who died, and an equal number of Afghans, who we often forget about, died after that moment when the war was no longer winnable. And the war will end with those same terms that would have been on offer, maybe even better terms would have been on offer when the Taliban had first been knocked out of power. And that’s the ultimate tragedy of this, is that everyone who died in the interim, that blood is very specifically on our hands.
RS: I want to end this on a point you may not agree with. But it’s I guess sort of the main, [Laughs] maybe the only significant—and I don’t know why I’m laughing, because I took some risks to learn this; I went to some dangerous areas. Not like you, for 18 years, but. And what came to me was an overwhelming sense of the stupidity of the very smart people who were in charge. Whether I was sitting at some high-ranking diplomat’s house; whether I was talking to a general who had also, not always had a Ph.D, but a good education. Basically, I was talking to people—Halberstam captured it with the title, “The Best and the Brightest”—who could present well. Again, manners; they weren’t buffoons, they were reasonable, and so forth. And yet, when I would have these conversations, it was informed by an idiocy, an unawareness. So, for example, in Vietnam, they would talk about the people, and I would say, “But the guy you put in power here–it wasn’t just ’69 they could have had peace.” They could have had peace with Ho Chi Minh after the Second World War, when he quoted the U.S. Declaration of Independence and was a nationalist who wanted—they could have had peace when he defeated the French. No! We picked a Roman Catholic from New York state, who was in a monastery in New York state, Vietnamese refugee, and we said he’s going to be the George Washington of his country. Ignoring the fact that the Catholics, who had been brought in by French colonial education, represented only 10% of the country. This is what Graham Greene wrote about. So, stupidity, you know. And then you look at the whole course of it, and a myth that somehow this is an extension of communism and China and—it wasn’t anything of the sort. We lose the war, and the Vietnamese communists and Chinese communists go to war with each other. OK? And now they’re going to war to fill the shelves of Costco or Walmart with different products. And something very similar happened in Iraq, happened in Afghanistan. It’s the same kind of, you know—we honor these leaders of our military as—and you taught at West Point. That’s why I’m putting the question to you. And you’re a very smart guy, you know, and yet, why don’t they learn from this? And my own explanation is because they’re not subject to a critical environment. And they’re not held accountable. And I’m bringing it back to Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. When we get these documents, like the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg released, we realize if they only read their own memos, if they only talked honestly to each other, they would know this. There wasn’t—everything they had to know was in the Pentagon Papers. Their own document. Right? And what we’ve learned from the WikiLeaks—if they would just have studied what Chelsea Manning, Bradley Manning released through Julian Assange, and just read those things—that were published in newspapers, Washington Post, The Guardian—they would have known, they would know how idiotic the whole enterprise is. So when you were brought back to West Point, and when you were sent by the Army to go get your doctorate, you’re an intelligent guy, you’ve paid your dues, they had you marked to be a general, you made it up to be a major. What happened when you tried to speak in reasonable terms to these fellow officers? And I know you just came from a conference a few weeks ago where there were some at least two-star generals, and important colonels. What is it like talking to them?
DS: You know, the best and the brightest have failed us again. And I’m glad that you used that term. The reality is that most of the general officers and most of the colonels are not in a critical environment; they’re not in an environment that, you know, wants dissent or wants critical thinking. I mean, they’re surrounded in a bubble by sycophants. I mean, that’s how they are raised up through the ranks in the Army; they don’t get a lot of criticism from above, below or laterally. It’s a very hierarchical structure. And it is stupidity. I mean, flat-out. The truncated nature of their thinking, I mean, it’s so narrow. And it is almost childish. I mean, their view of Islamism as the new communism, which is the new Nazism—I mean, that sort of thinking, it’s absolutely, it’s ludicrous. And yet it’s the, it’s the norm, right, it’s the consensus among the people that I served with, and among the policymakers, who are often worse, often more hawkish. You know, the “chicken hawks” like John Bolton. But they have failed you again, and they will fail you in the future. And there are very, very few critical-thinking officers who are able to get outside of that box and say, “The question isn’t are we doing this well, the question is should it be done at all—can it be done at all?” And if the answer is no, it’s time to speak up. And it’s time to give your military advice, and if necessary, resign.
RS: And, well, you’re no longer in the military. I don’t know where the next Danny Sjursen’s going to come from. But if you want to really have a sense of what it’s like to be on the ground in one of these wars that we treat as video games—and most of us, because we don’t have a draft, don’t really have to think about it, even though the country is being bankrupted by it. And we often commit genocide, war crimes and what have you. That’s what Julian Assange, for my money, revealed, and Bradley Manning. Check out the book, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Because the surge is held up, and will be held up in Afghanistan and so forth, as the saving grace. And then people like Barack Obama were criticized because they didn’t have another surge, or didn’t do more killing on that level. And check it out. Danny Sjursen, I want to thank you for doing this. It’s—it’s just so, to me, so depressing that there’s like 15 truth-tellers that we’ve had about our wars, from Daniel Ellsberg up to Danny Sjursen. You got to ask yourself some tough questions about why we, the citizens of this modern Rome, with a great deal of freedom and a great deal of arrogance about our power as individuals, are letting the empire drag us into these disasters and ultimately destroy the republic. But that’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our engineers at KCRW in Santa Monica are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Joshua Scheer is the producer of this show. And a special shout-out to Sebastian Grubaugh, the brilliant sound engineer here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who holds this whole thing together. And you know, yes, we have General Petraeus on the faculty, but we also heard from [Major] Danny Sjursen, presenting a very different view than that of Petraeus. So let it go at that, see you next week.
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country.
By Robert Scheer
This article was originally published by “TruthDig“–
The 21st Century