We are not a good and virtuous nation. God does not bless us above other nations. Victory is not assured. War is not noble and uplifting. The clash between the reality of combat and the Disneyfied version of combat consumed by the public, one that propels many young men and women into war, creates not only dissonance and moral injury, but an existential crisis—one that combat veterans, at least those who are self-reflective, must cope with for the rest of their lives.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who fought in Vietnam, and Danny Sjursen, a retired Army major who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, have just published Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars. Bacevich and Sjursen, West Point graduates like many writers in the book, come out of the military culture. They began as true believers, embracing the myths of American goodness and virtue, and the military honor code pounded into them as young cadets at the military academy. The reality of combat, as it has for generations, exposed the lies told by the generals and politicians.
Andrew Bacevich is a West Point graduate, retired Army Colonel, and Vietnam war veteran. He is also an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the co-founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His books include The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism and After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. He is the editor of the book Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars
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Chris Hedges: Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who fought in Vietnam, and Danny Sjursen, a retired Army major who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, have just published Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars. Bacevich and Sjursen, West Point graduates, like many writers in the book, come out of the military culture. They began as true believers, embracing the myths of American goodness and virtue, and the military honor code pounded into them as young cadets at the military academy. The reality of combat, as it has for generations, exposed the lies told by the generals and politicians.
We are not a good and virtuous nation. God does not bless us above other nations. Victory is not assured. War is not noble and uplifting. The clash between the reality of combat and the Disneyfied version of combat consumed by the public, one that propels many young men and women into war, creates not only dissonance and moral injury, but an existential crisis. An existential crisis combat veterans, at least those who are self-reflective, must cope with for the rest of their lives.
Joining me to discuss the themes in the book Paths Of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, is Andrew Bacevich. So, at the introduction of this book – These are a series of essays, many of them incredibly powerful – You write that the book “offers insights into how and why recent US military efforts have gone so badly astray. Flagrant malpractices by those at the top inflicted untold damage on the troops we ostensibly esteem, on populations US policy makers vowed to liberate, and ultimately on our own democracy. The adverse effects of war are by no means confined to the immediate arena in which fighting occurs.” But I want to ask you, isn’t this true, from Philoctetes to Yossarian, isn’t this the old story of war?
Andrew Bacevich: I suppose so. That said, we undertook our post 9/11 wars – Wars of choice, we should emphasize – At a moment when our political leaders insisted, and most Americans, I think, believed that we had acquired, built the best military force in all of history. And therefore, we believed, we told ourselves, that military force employed by the United States had a utility, effectiveness, with the events of 9/11 providing the basis of then putting force to work. That’s what we sought to do after 9/11. And the contributors to this book that Danny and I put together were among those who raised their hands and said, yeah, I volunteer, I’ll serve, and therefore experienced the consequences.
Chris Hedges: Before we get into… All of the writers in this book are from the current wars, you yourself served in Vietnam. Before we get into what they have written, this again is you writing. You say, “I concluded that classifying Vietnam as either a mistake or a tragedy amounts to little more than subterfuge. To use those terms is to evade a much deeper and more troubling truth. In fact, from its very earliest stages until its mortifying conclusion, America’s war in Vietnam was a crime.” Why a crime?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, let me acknowledge, first of all, that my own perspective on Vietnam… It’s been a half century since I served there, [it] has evolved over time. At one point, I was certainly a true believer. I don’t think that lasted terribly long. But I think I have come to believe that the dishonesty that provided the context for American intervention, and the further dishonesty that actually grew, deepened over the course of the conduct of the war, was so fundamentally wrong. And the absence of voices from within, from inside, whether they were policy makers or generals, was so disturbing that, in retrospect, I think criminal is the right term to describe the entire enterprise.
Chris Hedges: Would you use the word criminal to describe the enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, first of all, it’s important for us to distinguish between those two wars. We tend to lump them together. I think that a case can be made that there was justification for intervention in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the justification being that it was important for the United States to demonstrate that anyone collaborating with terrorists who would conduct an attack on us was going to pay a heavy price. So yes, there was, I think, a reasoned political argument for punishing the Taliban. Doesn’t follow that there was a reasoned argument for staying there for 20 years and trying to rebuild the place. So it became a criminal undertaking.
The Iraq case is different. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. I firmly believe that the Iraq War stemmed from the intentions of the George W. Bush administration to embark upon a preposterous effort to remake the entire greater Middle East. So it was deeply flawed from the outset. I think it was illegal, and yes, it was a criminal undertaking.
Chris Hedges: So the first essay is by Erik Edstrom, who also went to West Point, wrote a very good book that I read. And just a couple points he makes in his essay, I want to ask you about. He writes, “Military indoctrination is the voluntary surrender of one’s own identity to join a profession that often takes away the human dignity of others by force. Through repetition, service members have their values, behaviors, and identity recalibrated with the ultimate aim of making them willing to kill or be killed in political violence without thinking about it too much. It is the construction of blind faith in the state and the deconstruction of any critical thinking that could stand in opposition to the state’s aims.” He went to West Point, you went to West Point. Is that a correct assessment of what you are taught, or can we use the term indoctrination, what you are fed at West Point?
Andrew Bacevich: Yeah. He states it more sharply than I think I would. You just used the term indoctrination. I think I prefer to use the term socialization. I’m referring here to people who go to the service academies, not people who enlist in the Marine Corps and go to boot camp or enlist in the Navy and learn the skills of a sailor. But my experience at West Point exposed me to a very sophisticated and tested program of bringing… Of imparting a very particular worldview to me and to my classmates, to all of us, collectively and individually. And the worldview centered on the sacredness of the United States’ Constitutional order, centered on the belief that the United States Army was the most important institution in the United States, that the wellbeing of the republic, the survival of the republic, rested on whether or not that army was properly supported, and whether it did its job.
So I left, I think we all left, deeply imbued with that way of thinking. When you undergo that process beginning at age 17, it sticks. I think it took a long time for me… Probably it really took until after I got out of the army 20-some years later to begin to distance myself from those notions, to think critically about those notions, to achieve some amount of intellectual independence. I think my learning process testifies to how comprehensive and persuasive that process of socialization can be.
Chris Hedges: Erik writes about visiting a close friend who had been seriously injured by an IED in Afghanistan. He arrives in the intensive care burn unit in San Antonio. He’s “six-foot-four. [He is] mummified,” he writes, “in gauze, only the portion of his body needed for intravenous tubes were exposed. Parts of his face were raw and marbled as if a psychopath had flayed him with a cheese slicer and then worked him over with a blowtorch. His ears and nose were charred black; A stiff breeze would’ve made them crumble to dust. Lips were split… He was covered in greasy ointment. That’s a very important moment for him. I wondered if it had a parallel. When I covered the war in El Salvador, the first photographer who I knew who was killed suddenly changed the whole nature of war for me. I think that’s what Erik, in many ways, is saying. But I wonder if you could speak to that experience?
Andrew Bacevich: Well, mine was different. It was, I think, the beginning of my junior year at West Point, and my best friend from high school, he would become my brother-in-law. He’s my wife’s brother. Dropped out of college, enlisted in the Marine Corps, deployed to Vietnam. And within a month of arriving in country, stepped on a mine and blew his leg off. And there began a journey of decline that was destined to go on for quite some time. He was sent to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, and I asked for emergency leave so I could go visit him. They allowed me to go, and I did. So I was able to at least reassure myself that he was still alive. But that was a moment of awakening. Although, I was still undergoing that process of socialization. So I don’t know if that moment, as powerful as it was, really had the impact that it would have were I, at that time, living in a somewhat different environment. But yeah, I remember that.
Chris Hedges: Erik also writes about how… He said, “In the decade following graduation, the number of my friends injured or killed crossed into the double digits and kept going. Some were shot to death. Others were blown up. One died in a helicopter crash. A couple committed suicide. Many more were maimed and horrifically disfigured. Nearly all of us harbored internal demons.” I want to ask you about those demons.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, I’m not going to confess to my own [laughs]. My West Point class, I believe we lost a dozen classmates. The numbers may be slightly wrong, but about a dozen killed, a far larger number wounded, some terribly wounded, some subsequently suffering from PTSD quite severely. To include a classmate that I did not know when we were cadets, but who came to be a very close friend after I moved to where we live right now in Massachusetts. And my friendship with him taught me, showed me, gave me an appreciation of PTSD. He had had a terrible tour as a platoon leader in West Point, and carried with that, suffered from that for many years thereafter, until, through his own courage, was able to get his life on track.
The past was never forgotten. The past never really went away. But through his own courage and determination, he was able to put his life back together. I think that because of our friendship, I gleaned a deeper understanding of how these injuries, moral injuries, in some respects are… I don’t want to say worse than the physical injuries, but they are comparable in terms of their devastating impact on people.
One of the things I think I’ve come to appreciate about our more recent wars is the extent to which… Because we do have a better appreciation now of PTSD, an appreciation of soldier self-abuse, former soldier self-abuse, suicides, drugs. We know about that. I think that the country is still insufficiently aware of the afflictions that our veterans bear. Not all. Not all. But that many veterans bear as a consequence of what they experienced in uniform. And of course, to my mind, what makes it all the more tragic, or perhaps I should say reprehensible, is that the wars themselves are stupid, not worth fighting.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about moral injury. Matthew Hoh writes about it, I think quite eloquently, in the book. But it’s different from PTSD. Define moral injury.
Andrew Bacevich: I don’t know that I can. Matthew Hoh’s essay is spectacularly good. And so I don’t know exactly how he would define it. But I think it is to come away from the experience of war with the moral sensibility that you carried with you from your childhood and into uniform shattered, and therefore left without a moral compass to guide you. That would be my definition. But again, I’d have to go look at Matthew’s essay in the book to remind myself of how he defined it.
Chris Hedges: One of the writers, Joy Damiani, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. So, she ends up in the Public Affairs Unit as an Army journalist, which is great, because I think it just exposes the totalitarian system that the Army is. She said you were never allowed to “…Use the word ‘failure’ in print, never hinted at the possibility that every victory was actually a loss, and never, ever technically lied. [It was] a propaganda of omission. We, the government’s very own uniformed ‘journalists’, didn’t overtly fabricate. We just diligently told only the news deemed appropriate for team spirit.” The lie of omission is still a lie. But talk about the language that the military uses to describe itself, and the kind of inbred censorship inside the military, what it projects outward, and what’s happening internally.
Andrew Bacevich: Yeah. I’m not sure that I would single out the military for being uniquely at fault. It seems to me that institutional journalism, that is to say, journalism produced by institutions for internal consumption, is necessarily an exercise in fraudulence, whether we’re talking about working for Coca-Cola or your local hospital. So, military journalism, I think, very much conforms to that pattern. And therefore, the consumer should be wary of what he or she is reading. It’s not to be trusted. Quite frankly, we should be wary of what we read in
The New York Times and The Washington Post as well. But, perhaps more so when the news is being created by an institution to serve the needs of the institution.
Chris Hedges: Although they do fabricate. There’s an essay by Pat Tillman’s brother, and they fabricate it completely. He was killed by friendly fire and they had… And then Jessica Lynch, who becomes a kind of female version of Rambo, is completely untrue. So they will fabricate. There was a passage by Vincent Emmanuel that I found very interesting because it sounded more like Vietnam than Iraq. I’m just going to read it and then have you comment.
“Morale continued to drop during the second deployment in Western Iraq. We started smoking weed on patrol and doing coke while setting up observation posts. We’d brought most of the drugs with us when coming over. I remember emptying the first aid kit latched to my flak jacket and filling up the pouch with as much weed as I could. Most of those drugs lasted only the first few months of deployment, though. We’d planned to stretch out our supply to the end, but it didn’t stay secret for very long that we had good shit with us. And how could we deny anyone the pleasure of getting stoned under the brilliant, unprecedented, Mesopotamian sky?
The deployment turned sour quickly, with several Marines, including some of our commanding officers, killed in the first 72 hours. After that, things went from bad to worse. We shot at non-combatants. We tortured prisoners. We blew up civilian structures. We ran over, mutilated, and took pictures of dead Iraqis. As one headline in Maxim magazine put it, Al-Qa’im was the ‘Wild West of Iraq’. Frankly, we did whatever the fuck we wanted. 18-year-olds with machine guns, rocket launchers, and a license to kill…” Talk about that.
Andrew Bacevich: Well, first of all, I think that with regard to drug use, I didn’t serve in Iraq. I can’t testify to what happened in units there. I did serve in Vietnam, and although I didn’t use the drugs, there’s no question that, particularly in the latter part of the war, drug use was everywhere. A lot of heroin, in particular, in one particular unit in which I served.
Now, with regard to the terrible accusations that he wields with regard to his unit and its misconduct, again, I’m not in a position to judge. I dare say he is telling the truth as he understands the truth. The only thing I would say is that it is important to recognize that units differ, that the climate within unit A may well be different from the climate in unit B. And therefore, even if we take it face value – I do take it face value – The charges that he is making, I would be very careful about assuming that similar conditions existed in every other unit in the theater.
There’s an essay that you haven’t cited by Buddhika Jayamaha, who I know pretty well. After his time in the Army, he became a professor at the Air Force Academy, with a PhD in political science from Northwestern. An astonishing up from the bootstraps achievement. Jay Man, as he is known, served in the 82nd Airborne Division as an enlisted soldier, as an enlisted soldier in a unit that was assigned to conduct nighttime raids targeting so-called high value targets. I take his testimony as truthful.
And what he says is that his unit was well disciplined, had high morale, enlisted soldiers respected their leaders. His dissent, however – And this is why his essay is important to the book – Is that the entire effort was fundamentally misguided, because the effect of the effort was for the Americans to take the war away from the Iraqis, to make it, basically, an imperial enterprise. We will win the war for you. And what Jay Man and his colleagues came to understand was, hey, if this thing’s going to be won, they’ve got to win it on their own.
My point in giving that little anecdote is that we need to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush. I would argue that one of the strengths of this collection is that the perspectives on offer vary widely. We’ve got anti-war perspectives, people who basically argue that all war is wrong. We’ve got anti-Iraq or Afghanistan wars perspectives, people arguing that those wars were ill-advised or ill-conducted. So these dissenters, these military dissenters, as we refer to them, came to their perspective the hard way through their own personal experience with war, with military service, and in this volume share with the reader what they experienced, what they learned, what it all means to them.
Chris Hedges: Well, I think that’s true in every war I’ve covered. For me, one of the most important elements of a unit, if I was with a combat unit, if they didn’t go back and retrieve their dead and their wounded, I immediately got out as fast as I could, because it showed a disintegration within that unit, which is something that Victor obviously experienced. So you’re right. It does, in every war I’ve covered. But that that was a reality within Iraq I found interesting. He writes at the end that he’s about to be redeployed. “I promised myself that if I were forced to deploy for the third time, I would kill as many of my commanding officers as humanly possible.” Fragging was a very real experience in the Vietnam War. I think some people estimate as high as 25% of US officers were killed by their own soldiers, if I have that number right.
Matthew Hoh, beautiful essay. “I cannot emphasize enough the destructive effects – Moral, emotional, and spiritual – Of moral injury,” we were speaking about before. “It is believed by many to be the primary driver of combat veteran suicides. It is much more than mere guilt, shame, and regret, which it incorporates but supersedes in its manifestations and symptoms. The deaths of both Iraqis and Americans, the ongoing suffering of the Iraqi people, the anguish of American families bereft of their hoped-for futures were a burden on my soul. And I had not only witnessed the slaughter, but taken part in it too. My hands had been covered in blood and brains, fragments of ligament and bone. I was a perpetrator.” And he was. I love Matthew. I know him, and I admire him tremendously. And that’s the difference between myself and… I had bodyguards, but I never shot anyone. And I think that’s a big difference.
Andrew Bacevich: Yeah, no doubt about it.
Chris Hedges: It’s a bipartisan effort. This is, again, Hoh. He said, “It soon became apparent the only difference between the Iraq war and the Afghan War is that one had been run by a Republican and the other by a Democrat.” You have written to this, but on an issue like war, just like trade deals or anything else, there’s really no daylight between the two ruling parties.
Andrew Bacevich: Unquestionably true, until we get to Donald Trump.
Chris Hedges: Yes. He’s created his own party. I don’t know what we call it. It’s a cult, but certainly among the… You’re right.
Andrew Bacevich: Yes.
Chris Hedges: Among the establishment [crosstalk]
Andrew Bacevich: No, no. There’s no question. With regard to national security, there is a consensus, I think, basically dating from December 7, 1941, that has only rarely been challenged, and has never been toppled. Again, my war was the Vietnam War. I think as that war went badly, as opposition and protest grew, there was a challenge to the foreign policy consensus. There was an insistence that there should be no more Vietnams. And that notion, I think, survived for a brief time after the fall of Saigon. And yet, by the time we get to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, it vanishes.
Chris Hedges: But isn’t, Andrew, that the difference between Vietnam and the 20 years of warfare in the Middle East? Is that we did ask questions about ourselves as a nation, as a people, that we had not, perhaps, confronted before in the wake of Vietnam, that there was a kind of reckoning. If people like Westmoreland were not necessarily held accountable, they were certainly exposed. And that seems to be completely absent now.
Andrew Bacevich: I don’t fully agree with you, Chris. In my view, we squandered the moment for real accountability about Vietnam. Remember, in 1980 we elect Ronald Reagan president.
Chris Hedges: Well, I’m thinking of the immediate aftermath, what we saw… The fall of Saigon was ’73?
Andrew Bacevich: From 1975 to 1980, let’s say.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, no. It was a brief time period, but it was there.
Andrew Bacevich: Fair enough.
Chris Hedges: In a way that it’s not there now.
Andrew Bacevich: Absolutely agree. What we have now is, let’s forget about Iraq and Afghanistan. Hey, let’s talk about Ukraine.
Chris Hedges: Right.
Andrew Bacevich: Which is the new “good war”. I don’t think it is a good war. I think it was an unnecessary war. But it’s amazing to me how quickly the scandalous departure from Kabul that occurred early in the Biden administration, which touched off a furor of anger within the United States. It’s amazing to me how quickly that anger has diminished and the establishment has moved on. Quite frankly, the media has moved on.
Chris Hedges: Great. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.