Two Iraq war veterans explain why Congress has failed to stop the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and say the United States needs to learn from its imperialist history if anything is going to change.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
We are in the midst of a very dangerous and complex moment. We may have evaded a major war in the wake of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, but we must be aware and not forget of what we just witnessed has a long and embittered history, and that potential of madness is still very much with us. Soleimani’s life has been seen and has to be seen, I think, in the context of the tortured history between Iran, Iraq and the United States.
From overthrowing governments in Iran, to backing Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, to overthrowing him again when he was no longer of any use to the United States, all of this, as well, is wrapped up in Congress, who according to Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution is supposed to be vested with the power to declare war. And then from the war powers act after Vietnam and his feeble efforts to stop war, we got the Authorization of Use of Military Force in 2001, the U.S. Congress has abrogated that responsibility and we have been building an imperial presidency that has taken us to war devastating millions of people while wasting trillions of dollars over these decades. It is all connected.
And two men who went to war for this country and have written widely on these topics join us now. Matthew Hoh is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, former Director of Afghan Study Group and a Marine Corps officer who served in the Iraq war and in 2009 he resigned his state department position in Afghanistan in opposition to the escalation of that war. He’s now a member of Veterans for Peace.
And Danny Sjursen. He is a retired U.S. Army officer, regular contributor to antiwar.com and his work has appeared in numerous publications: The Nation, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, and more. He served combat tours with recognizance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He’s author of the memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. And gentlemen, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.
DANNY SJURSEN: Thanks very much, Marc.
MARC STEINER: So let me begin with this. It is a piece which kind of takes our history from Vietnam to this moment, and what presidents and people in power have said. Let’s just watch this to jump into this conversation.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam, has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.
SPEAKER: These points are located on this map showing the Gulf of Tonkin, South China, North Vietnam.
DONALD TRUMP: Soleimani was plotting eminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.
GEORGE W. BUSH: American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
MIKE POMPEO: We know it was eminent. This was an intelligence based assessment that drove our decision making process.
DONALD RUMSFELD: We have what we consider to be a very reliable reporting of possible chemical and biological agent training.
MIKE POMPEO: But the American people should know that President Trump’s decision to remove Qasem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There’s no doubt about that.
COLIN POWELL: We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction. He’s Determined to make more. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option.
SPEAKER 2: I think it is entirely possible that this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani and puts pressure on the Iranian government.
DICK CHENEY: I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.
MIKE POMPEO: There was dancing in the streets and parts of Iraq. We have every expectation that people, not only in Iraq but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom.
MARC STEINER: Lies and myth killing millions. This is one of the things that, from the beginning, I mean, I remember this from the 1960s and the lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin to this moment that we’re in now. All the things that we’ve… All the Wars we’ve had, at least in my lifetime, in my memorable lifetime, from the late fifties to now, has been built on a pack of damn lies that have not just killed so many of us Americans fighting the wars but has also killed just tens of millions of people across this globe.
So Matthew, let me start with you on this. And then please jump right in, Danny. I mean this is part of the madness we’re witnessing, and I think we forget the history that brought us to this place.
MATTHEW HOH: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Anything you watch about what’s occurring now, and not just with Iran, but literally with any other nation we’re dealing with, whether it be Russia and China, or India and Pakistan, or any of the multiple places in the Middle East and Africa where we are killing people daily with our military, it’s as if it’s happening in a vacuum. As if none of this has any type of antecedent. And it’s interesting, you say, about your lifetime. I was born in April of ’73 which was the year that the United States removed it’s last combat troops… Or, I’m sorry. The month and year of the United States removed its last combat troops from Vietnam.
MARC STEINER: I remember it well.
MATTHEW HOH: And as a six year old, my first memories of the world were the Iranian hostage crisis. I clearly remember that. And so this has been something that has absorbed American life and it has, because there’s so much mythology and falsehoods and lies that dominate this, it allows for people to be in power. And that clip you just had with all the various United States government officials lying about these wars, that as you said, Marc, have led to tens of millions of deaths, it is something that we have to, I think, reassess our actual government because we have a government that is so easily dominated by psychopaths and sociopaths that I think we have to, at some point, reevaluate our system of governance in this country.
MARC STEINER: Danny?
DANNY SJURSEN: Watching those clips, that whole grouping of clips, I want to bring back some like old terms and just say “balderdash.” There’s three things that concern me and I just want to talk about one now.
MARC STEINER: Please do.
DANNY SJURSEN: So I’m concerned about the dubious legality of the strike. The assassination. I’m concerned with the un-strategic nature of the decision to strike. But for this clip, I want to talk about the evidence problem. We were told that the strike was imminent, but we were provided no evidence as a public. Okay, well maybe it was classified. They love to say that we have to keep official secrets. So then they briefed Congress yesterday and Senator Mike Lee, Republican style, said it was the worst briefing he’d ever heard. And he went on CNN and said that the way this whole thing went down was “un-American and unacceptable.”
So here’s the thing. In the wake of the lies that brought us the 2003 Iraq invasion, in the wake of the CIA torture report, all the lies about that torture program, and in the wake of the Afghanistan Papers, which we so quickly forgot, why should an American citizen ever again trust their government when they say, “Hey, there was an imminent attack. Hey, we’re protecting you from a threat.” Hey, count me skeptical. I will never again, whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in charge, trust on face value, the evidence provided to me. In fact, when I’m in a nursing home someday, I’m going to be the curmudgeon rolling around telling these other old folks, “Don’t trust your government.”
MARC STEINER: I’ll probably get there before you, though.
DANNY SJURSEN: See you there.
MARC STEINER: But let’s pick on what you just said. There’s an interesting clip here from Pence talking about why they didn’t tell Congress by what was about to happen.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Why not, in a classified setting, can our briefers from this administration share what it was this threat that you talk about in a classified setting?
MIKE PENCE: Well, some of that has to do with what’s called sources and methods, Savannah, that if we were to share all of the intelligence and, in fact, some of the most compelling evidence that Qasem Soleimani was preparing an eminent attack against American forces and American personnel, also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have. It could compromise those sources and methods.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Even in a classified setting?
MIKE PENCE: I have tremendous respect–
MARC STEINER: I was thinking about what you just said, was why I played that clip, Danny. And also this kind of alludes to what I was saying in the beginning, that we are also in the midst of building this imperial presidency. We’ve been doing for the last 50 years, but it’s really picked up intensity since the turn of the century. And this very statement by the Vice President of States to me is a huge danger in terms of where our country could be led and what we could be led into. Go ahead, Danny.
DANNY SJURSEN: I’ll just say that the whole idea that “sources and methods…” they love that buzzword. I mean, you could play buzzword bingo with Mike Pence right now. “Sources and methods.” That’s what they use to fool you, right? That’s what they use to keep you in the dark. Okay, we can never tell you the evidence because if we did, we, you know, give away our sources and methods. But anybody who’s worked in intelligence knows that there are ways to give you the gist of the evidence without exposing sources and methods.
This is an imperial presidency. What concerns me is that Trump pulled a James K. Polk. Okay? To go back in history where Polk basically sent our troops into an area that was contested, and he knew there would be a war. So we set up a fait accompli. And I would say that Trump has done the same thing. By attacking, by assassinating Soleimani, he set up a state of war. And he left Congress, the media, and the people, but specifically in this case the Congress, to pick up the pieces.
So if you create a de facto state of war, what have we done, and what are we seeing today with this absurd vote that doesn’t mean anything? What we’re seeing today is that Congress is in reactive mode and that is not the design of the founding fathers regarding war making authority. But here we are; here we are 70 years After the National Security Act that started this imperial presidency that we voted in.
MARC STEINER: So, Matthew, let’s pick up on this point. One of the things, the questions we have to wrestle with here, in part in terms of what happened today in Congress: Is Congress really serious at all about taking back the power to declare war or not to declare war in this country?
MATTHEW HOH: No, they’re not. And to Danny’s point about this war powers vote being meaningless. It is. My understanding is that it’s a concurrent resolution, which means that it doesn’t go to the President for signature. It doesn’t have the effect of law. So it’s just the same thing Marc as you or I or Danny or anybody who’s watching or listening to this just posting on Facebook or Twitter that they’re unhappy about this. And watching Nancy Pelosi today, all she had to offer was that we need to pray. And she made the ritual, almost religious type requirements of kneeling towards it and making the gestures towards American exceptionalism all throughout her little talk about this. But she kept saying, “pray.”
And I’m reminded… My Muslim friends have a quote, and I’m not sure of the origins of it, if it’s from the prophet or not, but it’s basically “Pray to Allah but tie up your camel.” And for the Speaker of the House to stand there and claim that all she can do is pray, as well then to lie about what she’s doing because she did say, Nancy Pelosi did say, that this is going to limit the President’s actions and tie his hands when again, it doesn’t have the force of the law.
Just as with the Yemen War Powers Resolution that failed to override the veto, they did not then pursue a concurrent resolution, which would have then put that resolution about Yemen into the force of law. Or, they hadn’t then pursued the other avenue with that of shutting down the financial support for that war. That would stop American military operations. So if the members of Congress were actually serious about this, if Nancy Pelosi and the democratic leadership were serious about this, they would stop funding to American military forces. That would not allow them, then, to carry out such attacks or engage in such a war and basically force a withdrawal from the region. But we all know that the Democratic party is no different than a Republican party in many ways. And being a card carrying member of the war machine is one such thing.
I’m getting back to this idea about the classification. I was reminded, and I recommend people look at Danny’s writings. Danny is basically… I’m not sure if, Danny, if you’re Gen X or if you’re a Millennial, but whichever generation you’re a part of, you are like that generations Howard Zinn. And go back and read the things Danny has written, particularly the things that precede our modern times, because when people ask me what they should read to understand these wars and to understand the U.S. military and the U.S. government, I always say three books. One is About Face by David Hackworth, the other is The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam, and the third is A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. And these are all books all about Vietnam.
And Sheehan said what he learned from the Pentagon Papers, which was when Daniel Ellsberg released the documents that showed that the Pentagon and the United States government knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. That we were losing. We had no chance of success. Just as the Washington Post recently released the Afghan Papers, Sheehan said that he realized about classified information is that it’s not meant to protect the American people from enemies, but it’s meant to protect the American people from knowledge that humiliates or embarrasses their government. And in this case, with these so-called evidence, there is no evidence. And that’s why they say such things, as Danny explained, about sources and methods and we can’t release it and et cetera, et cetera, because it’s just one more lie.
MARC STEINER: And these lies are, I mean, they’re killing us and they’re wasting money and they’re killing people across the globe. So I think a perfect place for us to go to at this moment would be what you just alluded to Matt, which was the article that Danny wrote and one of your recent articles. And let me ask you both to do something for our viewers here, and I’ll start with Danny and come back to you, Matt, on this.
On your pieces that describe where we are now, and Danny, you wrote this incredible article just talking about the history of our imperialism, the history of this country, what leads us to this place, and led us the point of assassinating Soleimani, and this absurdity, this dangerous absurdity. So talk a bit about what, in a sense, your thesis from that piece, because it’s important for people to hear it.
DANNY SJURSEN: Right. So, look, I titled the piece The Islamic Republic of Restraint, and I did that on purpose. Actually, I often start with the title and then build an article with idea that it’s probably not the correct way to do it. Here’s the deal: I knew after Iran purposely or not–I think purposely–missed American targets; I knew what was going to happen. But Trump interiors from the administration were to come out and say, “See? He’s a stable genius.” That he’s a deal maker. He knew this was going to happen. He was right all along.
Well, the reality to me is that the gold star for restraint now and in almost every instance in the past of our relationship with Iran has to go to the Islamic Republic. I mean, their responses to our provocations, which have included overthrowing their first democratically elected prime minister supporting an invasion from Iraq that killed 500,000 or so people, shooting down one of their civilian airliners and then refusing to apologize, sinking half their navy, threatening with regime change, calling them part of the Axis of Evil, and then assassinating the second or third most powerful guy in their government, that’s just a few things, right?
In almost every instance, Iran’s retaliation has been relatively muted, even in the moments where they did kill Americans, okay? Usually it’s through proxies. We’re talking about Lebanon. We’re talking about Beirut. Even in those instances, the scale of their response was nowhere near, nowhere near, the scale of our provocation. And so what I want to say is “Bravo” to Tehran. Bravo to the Islamic Republic of Iran for not being a perfect routine, not having a perfect human rights record, but for avoiding all-out war with the United States even when provoked.
MARC STEINER: And what’s important, because what you… I mean, you were very subtle on that piece as well. And what you just said. I mean nobody can throw flowers and alms at the Islamic Republic for oppressing his own people all the time, but they clearly are not anxious to go to war. Not with the United States. They’ve made that very clear. And I think that we forget the history, forget the Iraq/Iran war history, we forget how many billions we put into helping Saddam Hussein kill a half a million Iranians as you talk about in your piece, as well. We forget that part of our history. You can’t talk about this moment unless you understand our history.
DANNY SJURSEN: Absolutely. And the problem is that both Republicans, Democrats, Twitter trolls, and the entire media all act as though this happened in a vacuum and history began yesterday. Or, at best, history began on Friday when we assassinated, when we executed Qasem Soleimani, a member of the government of a sovereign nation without a declaration of war using the ubiquitous weapon, fittingly, using the ubiquitous weapon of the imperial post 9/11 wars, the drone missile.
MARC STEINER: And that, to me, dovetails perfectly, Matt Hoh, with your piece. Because again, we forget. Because sometimes people look at this and we talk about the military industrial complex, we talked about the power of that complex on Capitol Hill, but we really don’t really get down into the weeds of what that power means and how deep it is. And you did in that piece you just wrote.
MATTHEW HOH: Sure. The history of this goes back in the piece that I’ve finished, the article’s speaking about the Roman gods of war and money, Mars and Pluto, and saying how, because that’s who we basically serve as a nation now and have always served as a nation, that we should pull down our statues of Lincoln and Jefferson and replace them with Mars and Pluto. And that’s not coincidence that Lincoln and Jefferson sit and stand in Greco Roman style architecture. That those monuments purposely emulate what the Romans and Greeks did. And what we’ve inherited from that through centuries of, eons, basically, of ongoing exceptionalism. Right?
And anyone who, again, go back to what Nancy Pelosi said today, she talked about how she expects greatness from America. Anyone who has never visited a native American reservation, and not talking about going to a casino, I’m talking about actually visiting the towns on the reservation and seeing what we have done to those people. If you do not have African American friends, talk to them. Not just even, not about slavery or about the convict leasing, but talk to them about like their own family history, in living memory, of the fear of lynching.
So what we have done, we are the world’s largest prison system in the world, and all that is just pushed aside to demonize those overseas. And again, as you said, Marc, none of us are meaning the throw flowers and laurels at their reins. They have a terribly oppressive system. Their people deserve a better government than what they have by sure. But what we do is rooted in our histories. It is rooted in what we have done. And it’s interesting because this all, of course, is dovetailing with impeachment.
And it’s my understanding, and Danny probably knows this better, that the first impeachment trial in U.S. history aside from Andrew Johnson, or the first impeachment of a non-president, of a cabinet member, occurred in the Grant administration. And it was, I believe, the Secretary of War at the time involving the contracts for the Indian Bureau in terms of skimming and graft and bribery of all that money that was meant to go to Native American tribes and those reservations that was being stolen by the people involved in the system. At that point, you see already the military industrial complex is alive and thriving. And that’s 150 years ago. And that involves an impeachment trial.
And here of course in our impeachment trial, or the Senate trial that’s coming up in the impeachment that’s already occurred, the basis of that is $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. A nation that has a president that’s looking to somehow to get to a peace deal with Russia and the Ukrainian separatists. But we’re still trying to sell them $400 million, a half billion dollars worth of weapons.
We can be here all day and all night talking about all the historical antecedents and precedents of this, but I think it’s important for people to know because, and people don’t understand and people not to, I don’t think anyone listening or watching here is going to give the benefit of the doubt, but certainly to be able to arm themselves to try and better educate relatives and friends in discussions about this because it’s just shocking how short memories are in the United States.
MARC STEINER: I wish we could grant you more time here because the stuff that both of you have written and have been talking about, especially as veterans, makes huge sense and people need to read both these articles and really wrestle with them and we’ll have both of these men back on as much as we can and as soon as we can. And I think we all have a responsibility here, whether it’s taking it to the streets or really using a ballot box, to put the people in who will fight for us and make sure that these wars do not happen and the madness does not still rein.
I want to thank you both for your work and thank you for joining us today. We were just talking with Matthew Hoh and Danny Sjursen. Good to have you both with us, and I really do look forward to getting back together with you soon.
MATTHEW HOH: Thanks, Marc.
DANNY SJURSEN: Thanks so much, Marc. Always a pleasure.
MARC STEINER: Thanks for your work. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think and your ideas about where we should go with this. Take care.