the Brave Military Voices Against Forever War?
Today, my peers are silent.
By Maj. Danny Sjursen
Iraq War veteran Mike Prysner is arrested by U.S.
Capitol Police during a 2007 protest. Credit:/CreativeCommons/DannyHammontree
But they’ve been taught the
way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not
And shuddering groans; but
passing through it
With due regard for decent
How to Die
20, 2017 "Information
is my favorite moment. Of World War I, that is. The
one that stays with me.
1914: Nearly a million men are already dead, and the
war is barely four months old. Suddenly, and
ultimately in unison, the opposing German and
British troops begin singing Christmas carols. At
first light, German troops emerge unarmed from their
trenches, and walk out into “no-man’s land.” Despite
fearing a ruse, the Brits eventually joined their
sworn enemies in the churned earth between the
trench lines. Carols were sung, gifts of cigarettes
exchanged—one man even brought out a decorative
tree. It only happened once. Though the bloody,
senseless war raged across three more Christmases,
the officers on each side quashed future attempts at
a holiday truce. And yet, for that brief moment, in
the ugliest of circumstances, the common humanity of
Brits and Germans triumphed. It must have been
nearly ten million men would die in battle. For all
that, little was settled. It rarely is. The ruling
classes still ruled, the profiteers profited, and
Europe went to war again not twenty years later. So
it went, and so it goes.
World War I boasted countless skeptics and anti-war
activists both in and out of uniform. Their poetry
and prose was dark, but oh was it ever powerful.
Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen from the Brits;
Erich Maria Remarque for the stoic Germans; and our
own Ernest Hemingway. A lost generation, which
sacrificed so much more than youth: their innocence.
They call to us, these long dead dissenters, from
might ask: Where are
skeptical veterans? Tragically, silence is our only
It was not
always so in America. During the brutal Seminole
Indian Wars, 17 percent of army officers
resigned in disgust rather than continue burning
villages and hunting natives down like dogs in
Florida’s Everglades’ swamps. Mark Twain’s
cheeky prose demolished the Philippine-American
colonial war at the turn of the century (some 30
years after he briefly served in the Missouri
state militia during the Civil War). Hemingway,
laid the truth bare after being wounded in the
First Great War while serving as a Red Cross
ambulance driver. And Major General Smedley
Butler—two-time Medal of Honor recipient though
he was—emerged from the Caribbean “Banana Wars”
to admit he’d been naught but a “high class
muscle man for Big Business,” a “gangster for
For all the
celebration (and mythologizing) over World War II,
at least we had Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller to
burst our comfortable, patriotic bubble. And, though
it likely lost him the presidency, Senator John
Kerry (and his Vietnam Vets against the War mates)
showed the courage to testify to the truth in the
Winter Soldier Hearings.
a few brave attempts, we are treated to nothing of
the sort. Why, you ask?
begin with, most of the above mentioned wars were
fought by draftees, militiamen, and short-term
volunteers: in other words, citizen-soldiers. Even
now, the identity of “citizen-soldier” ought to
emphasize the former term:
It doesn’t. Now, as we veterans are constantly
reminded, we are
2017, it’s near impossible to remember that today’s
professional, volunteer army is less than half a
century old, a product of epic failure in Vietnam.
Most of America’s Founding Fathers, after all,
scorned standing armies and favored a body of
august, able citizen-soldiers. Something more akin
to our National Guard. Deploy
men to faraway lands, so the thinking went, and each
town would lose its blacksmith, carpenter, and
cobbler too. Only vital interests warranted such
sacrifice. Alas, it is no longer so.
In truth, the
“citizen-soldier” is dead, replaced—to the sound of
cheers—by self-righteous subalterns hiding beneath
the sly veil of that ubiquitous corporate idiom:
professionalism. Discipline, motivation,
teamwork—these are all sleek, bureaucratic terms
certain to mold terrific middle managers, but they
remain morally bare. And, ultimately, futile.
So today, my
peers are silent. Professional officers are
volunteers; dissenters are seen as little more than
petulant whiners, or oddball nuts. It is hard to
know why, exactly, but the increasing cognitive and
spatial distance of contemporary soldiers from
society at large seems a likely culprit. Combine
that with the Republican Party’s veritable monopoly
on the political loyalties of the officer corps and
you have yourself a lethal combination.
rule out cowardice. Who isn’t fearful for their
career, income, and family stability? It is only
natural. After all, this business—despite
protestations to the contrary—does not tend to value
intellectualism or creative thinking. Trust me.
Besides, in this struggling transitory economy, the
military “welfare state” is a tempting option for
America’s declining middle class. Ironic, isn’t it,
that the heavily conservative officer corps loves
their socialized medicine and guaranteed pensions?
circumstances, perhaps silence is understandable.
But it is also complicity.
By now, the
wars are lost, if ever they were winnable. Iraq will
fracture, Syria collapse, and Afghanistan wallow in
perpetual chaos. It will be so. The people will
forget. Our professional, corporate regiments will,
undoubtedly, add banners to their battle flags—sober
reminders of a job well done in yet another lost
cause. Soldiers will toast to lost comrades, add
verses to their ballads, and precious few will ask
Perhaps a good officer suppresses such doubt,
maintains a stoic, if dour, dignity, and silently
soldiers on. As for me, I am not made of such stuff,
and more’s the pity. I buried seven men in the
fields of the Forever War, casualties of combat and
the muted sufferings of suicide.
sacrifice demands explanation. They deserve as much.
lonely few, we who publicly dissent, the audience is
scant, interest meagre, and our existence: solitary.
is a U.S. Army strategist and former history
instructor at West Point. He served tours with
reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
wrote a memoir,
Ghost Riders of
Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the
him on Twitter
expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not reflect the official policy or position
of the Department of the Army, Department of
Defense, or the U.S. government.)
article has been edited to reflect Mark Twain’s
brief stint in the Missouri state militia, not the
regular Confederate army; and the fact that Ernest
Hemingway served the Red Cross during World War I.
This article was first published by
The American Conservative