MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Tomgram: Erik Edstrom, The Betrayal of the American Soldier | TomDispatch

Posted by M. C. on May 13, 2020

It worked like this: we, the infantry, secured a road in Kandahar
Province, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry, so that
we could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply
us, ad nauseam and in perpetuity. Such a system was mockingly derided by my troops as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176700/tomgram%3A_erik_edstrom%2C_the_betrayal_of_the_american_soldier/#more

By Erik Edstrom

“Every day is a copy of a copy of a copy.” That meme, from the moment when Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club offers a 1,000-yard stare at an office copy machine, captures this moment perfectly — at least for those of us removed from the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis. Isolated inside a Boston apartment, I typically sought new ways to shake the snow globe, to see the same bubble — the same stuff — differently.

Quarantine has entered a new season. The month of May has brought daffodils and barbeque grills. Memorial Day is just around the corner. And every Friday at 7:00 PM, residents in my neighborhood hang out of their windows to bang pots and cheer until they get tired (usually, about two minutes later). It’s a nice gesture to healthcare workers, a contemporary doff of the cap, but does it change anything? Perhaps it’s just another permutation of that old American truism: if you’re getting thanked for your service, you’re in a job where you’re getting shafted.

The war against President Trump’s “invisible enemy” spasms on and we’re regularly reminded that healthcare workers, dangerously ill-equipped, must beg for personal protective equipment. But this Memorial Day, the 18th during America’s War on Terror, our national focus is likely to shift, even if only momentarily, to the soldiers who are still fighting and dying in a self-perpetuating war, now under pandemic conditions.

Reflecting on my own time as a soldier deployed to combat in Afghanistan, I hope that Covid-19 causes us to redefine what “patriotism” and “national security” really should mean. My suggestion: If you want to honor soldiers this Memorial Day, start by questioning the U.S. military.

With this on my mind, and all alone in that apartment, I knew exactly where to look for inspiration.

The Journal

Just before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May, 2009, I bought a journal. It was brown, faux-leather, and fit in the hip pocket of Army combat trousers. It wasn’t particularly nice — just something you might pick up at Office Max.

Nonetheless, my soldiers ribbed me for it. “Dear diary,” they snickered.

“No, no, this is a war journal,” I would reply, imagining such a distinction as sufficiently manly to overcome whatever stigma they had when it came to this self-appointed diarist.

At first, journaling was a distraction. I captured images of my platoon, a lovable assemblage of misfits and Marlboro men. But soon, that journal acquired a more macabre tone, its lines filling with stories of roadside bombs, shootouts, amputated limbs, and funerals playing out in a page-by-page street fight of scribbles and scratch-outs.

On a humdrum route-clearance patrol on our fourth day in-country, before the unit of soldiers we were replacing even had a chance to depart, my squad leader’s vehicle was catastrophically destroyed by a roadside bomb. We loaded four broken, bloody, ketamine’d soldiers onto an Air MEDEVAC helicopter en route to urgent care at Kandahar Airfield. (At this rate, I realized, my platoon of 28 would be wiped out within a month.)

I reassured the soldier who was most coherent that he was “going to be okay.” Truth was: I didn’t know. And what did “okay” in battlefield injury-speak even mean? A quadruple amputee with a pulse? Years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or maybe, with luck, merely a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation below the knee, which my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital called “a paper cut.”

For this soldier, okay turned out to mean broken bones and lacerations bad enough to send him home, but not bad enough to keep him there. He was stitched-up and sent back to war five months later. When he finally returned to America, in Oregon, he murdered and dismembered someone he didn’t even know in a bathtub. Then he stole the dead man’s car to rob a bank. He’s currently serving life in prison.

But such stories, however raw and urgent they felt, were small. We were, after all, just one platoon in a big, ugly mess of a war, committing acts of political violence against people we didn’t know for reasons we didn’t fully understand.

Although I was told that I’d be “fighting terrorism” in Afghanistan, most of the people our unit was killing turned out to be teenagers or angry farmers with legitimate grievances, people tired of America’s never-ending occupation of their land, tired of our country’s contemptuous devaluation of Afghan lives. And frankly, 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.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. military did not encourage me to think too much or too deeply about the morality of the war I was fighting. A popular military aphorism was: “stay in your lane.” And so I jotted down my real thoughts in private and continued with the “mission,” whatever that was, since there appeared to be no coherent plan or strategy, something fully substantiated when, late last year, the Washington Post released “the Afghanistan Papers,” secret and frank interviews by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan with top U.S. commanders and officials.

“Operation Highway Babysitter”

That brown journal of mine lived through a lot and, at the end of my deployment, it earned a just retirement at the bottom of a cardboard box — until recently, when, in the midst of self-isolation in the Covid-19 moment, I excavated it from its resting place and brought it into the light of day as if it were so many dinosaur bones.

The cover was a wreck, the pages, earth-stained and dog-eared. Nonetheless, my chicken-scratched entries were enough to reconstruct old, long-buried memories. Those pages cast into relief how far I’ve come. Physically, I’m 6,632 miles away. Temporally, I’m a decade older. But morally, I’m a completely different person.

The first two — distance and time — don’t add up to much. I’ve returned home. I’ve gotten older. But what about the third? Why do I look back on my role in that still never-ending war not as a hero or as a well-intentioned participant, but as a perpetrator? And why, now, do I feel like I was a genuine sucker?

In a sense, I already knew the answers to those questions, but I wanted to revisit the journey I’d taken by flipping those pages past coffee-ring stains and even dried blood. And here’s what I found: I crossed my moral threshold on a dusty road, a glum bit of terrain I watched over for 15 hours straight. The mission’s apt nickname, scrawled in that journal, was “Operation Highway Babysitter.”

It worked like this: we, the infantry, secured a road in Kandahar Province, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry, so that we could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply us, ad nauseam and in perpetuity. Such a system was mockingly derided by my troops as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”

Despite the effort we put into stopping IED — that is, roadside bomb — emplacement, we neither stopped them, nor created anything that might have passed for “progress.” The problem with IEDs was simple enough: we could watch some of the roads all of the time or all of the roads some of the time, but never all of the roads all of the time. Wherever we couldn’t patrol was precisely where the next one would be emplaced.

Quickly enough, we saw the futility of it all, yet what alternative did we have? We belonged to the Army and so were destined to spend our Afghan tour of duty playing human minesweepers.

Ox, my platoon sergeant, internalized his frustration. During Operation Highway Babysitter, he cut a striking image of Oscar the Grouch, with a fat dip of chewing tobacco puckering his cheek. Just above that egg-sized wad was a small scar from a bullet fragment that had skipped off an Iraqi pavement during the 2003 invasion of that country. One could say that Ox carried the war with him in the most literal sense.

And if we weren’t getting blown up by insurgents, we were getting shot by the Afghan National Police. No kidding. One hot afternoon, an Afghan policeman, visibly high, shot my team leader, Brody, from six feet away with a machine gun. The 7.62 mm bullet hit him in the torso, a spot not covered by body armor. It was a negligent discharge and Brody lived, but my whole platoon wanted to murder that policeman. We didn’t, which seemed rather commendable.

Even as we became increasingly disillusioned, we remained soldiers, trained to execute, however ludicrous the task. If we had to stay in our lane, though, at least we wanted the satisfaction of fighting our enemy face-to-face. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there, but the desire to fight hadn’t left us and, as it turned out, we got our chance on Halloween 2009 — a day caught vividly in that brown journal of mine.

The Sound of Revenge

A couple of hours into highway babysitting that day, our stakeout was interrupted by the sound of gunfire. We buttoned up the trucks and set out for danger. When we arrived, the shooting had stopped. All we saw were a few men — maybe farmers, maybe insurgents — in a large grape field. It was hard to make out what they were doing, but there were no weapons to be seen.

Armed only with speculation, there were no grounds (under the rules of engagement we lived by) to shoot them, so our G.I. Joe energy began to melt away and we were distinctly disappointed.

I concede that it’s a strange emotion to actually want to kill someone, knowing there will be no repercussions for doing so — except possibly praise and maybe even medals if you’re successful…

The rest here

Be seeing you

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