Can We Learn Anything From Our Forever Wars?

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U.S. Army Maj. Danny Sjursen Photo courtesy of Sjursen

In a brutally honest exit interview, recently retired U.S. Army Maj. Danny Sjursen opens up about his 18 years as a witness to the carnage of America’s forever wars.

Shortly after Truthdig columnist Danny Sjursen left the U.S. 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. As a civilian, Sjursen, who attended West Point and did several tours in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, opened up to Scheer about how leaving the institution he spent most of his adult life in has allowed him to finally be completely frank about his experiences in his columns as well as 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, you know, and it’s very passive-aggressive stuff. But you know, 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 PhD and a career as a writer while adapting to his new life and grappling with PTSD, the former army major is still profoundly troubled by his experiences at war, not only as he led soldiers to their deaths, but also as he watched the U.S. forces devastate the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. While he had gone 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 percent of the very friendly Iraqis--not attacking us, as far as I knew. [...] 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 that the U.S. has created worse conditions for Iraqis after the death of Saddam Hussein in their own nation, the former military leader explains that the nearly half a million Iraqis that have died since the early 2000’s were not killed directly by American soldiers, but rather also by the unleashing of the “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 Qaeda 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 is conscious of so 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 the full discussion between Sjursen and Scheer as the two talk about everything from WikiLeaks to the accumulating failures of America’s leaders, at home and abroad.



Joshua Scheer