Originally published in TomDispatch.
I used to command soldiers. Over the years, lots of them actually. In Iraq, Colorado, Afghanistan, and Kansas.
And I’m still fixated on a few of them, like this one private first class (PFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. All of 18, he was short, scrawny, and popular. Nine months after graduating from high school, he’d found himself chasing the Taliban with the rest of our gang. At five foot nothing, I once saw him step into an irrigation canal and disappear from sight — all but the two-foot antenna on his radio.
In my daydreams, I always see the same scene, the moment his filthy, grizzled baby face reappeared above that ditch, a cigarette still dangling loosely from his lips. His name was Anderson and I can remember thinking at that moment: What will I tell his mother if he gets killed out here?
And then… poof… it’s 2017 again and I’m here in Kansas, pushing papers at Fort Leavenworth, those days in the field long gone. Anderson himself survived his tour of duty in Afghanistan, though I’ve no idea where he is today. A better commander might. Several of his buddies were less fortunate. They died, or found themselves short a limb or two, or emotionally and morally scarred for life.
From time to time I can’t help thinking of Anderson, and others like him, alive and dead. In fact, I wear two bracelets on my wrist engraved with the names of the young men who died under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq, six names in all. When I find a moment, I need to add another. It wasn’t too long ago that one of my soldiers took his own life. Sometimes the war doesn’t kill you until years later.
And of this much I’m certain: The moment our nation puts any PFC Anderson in harm’s way, thousands of miles and light years from Kansas, there had better be a damn good reason for it, a vital, tangible national interest at stake. At the very least, this country better be on the right side in the conflicts we’re fighting.
The Wrong Side
It’s long been an article of faith here: The United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the planet’s “indispensable nation.” But what if we’re wrong?
After all, as far as I can tell, the view from the Arab or African “street” tells a different story altogether. Americans tend to loathe the judgments of foreigners, but sober strategy demands that once in a while we walk the proverbial mile in the global shoes of others. After all, almost 16 years into the war on terror, it should be apparent that something isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to ask whether the United States is really playing the role of the positive protagonist in a great global drama.
I know what you’re thinking: ISIS, the Islamic State, is a truly awful outfit. And so it is, and the U.S. is indeed combatting it, though various allies and even adversaries (think: Iran) are doing most of the fighting. Still, with the broader war for the Greater Middle East in mind, wouldn’t it be appropriate to stop for a moment and ask: Just whose side is America really on?
Certainly, it’s not the side of the average Arab. That should be apparent. Take a good, hard look at the region and it’s obvious that Washington mainly supports the interests of Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s military dictator, and various Gulf State autocracies. Or consider the actions and statements of the Trump administration and of the two administrations that preceded it and here’s what seems obvious: The United States is in many ways little more than an air force, military trainer, and weapons depot for assorted Sunni despots.
Now, that’s not a point made too often — not in this context anyway — because it’s neither a comfortable thought for most Americans, nor a particularly convenient reality for establishment policymakers to broadcast, but it’s the truth.
Yes, we do fight ISIS, but it’s hardly that simple. Saudi Arabia, our main regional ally, may portray itself as the leader of a “moderate Sunni block” when it comes to both Iran and terrorism, but the reality is, at best, far grayer than that. The Saudis — with whom President Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal during the first stop on his inaugural foreign trip back in May — have spent the last few decades spreading their intolerant brand of Islam across the region. In the process, they’ve also supported al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.
Maybe you’re willing to argue that al-Qaeda spin-offs aren’t ISIS, but don’t forget who brought down those towers in New York. While President Trump enjoyed a traditional sword dance with his Saudi hosts — no doubt gratifying his martial tastes — the air forces of the Saudis and their Gulf state allies were bombing and missiling Yemeni civilians into the grimmest of situations, including a massive famine and a spreading cholera epidemic amid the ruins of their impoverished country.
So much for the disastrous two-year Saudi war there, which goes by the grimly ironic moniker of Operation Restoring Hope — and for which the U.S. military provides midair refueling and advanced munitions, as well as intelligence.
If you’re a human rights enthusiast, it’s also worth asking just what kind of states we’re working with here. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive automobiles, “sorcery” is a capital offense, and people are beheaded in public. Hooray for American values! And newsflash: Iran’s leaders — whom the Trump administration and its generals are obsessed with demonizing — may be no angels, but the Islamic republic they preside over is a far more democratic country than Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy. Imagine Louis XIV in a keffiyeh and you’ve just about nailed the nature of Saudi rule.
After Israel, Egypt is the number two recipient of direct U.S. military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion annually. And that bedrock of liberal values is led by U.S.-trained General Abdel el-Sisi, a strongman who seized power in a coup and then, just for good measure, had his army gun down a crowd demonstrating in favor of the deposed democratically elected president.
And how did the American beacon of hope respond? Well, Sisi’s still in power; the Egyptian military is once again receiving aid from the Pentagon; and, in April, President Trump paraded the general around the White House, assuring reporters, “In case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi… He’s done a fantastic job!”
In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. military is fighting a loathsome adversary in ISIS. But even so, the situation is far more complicated than usually imagined here.
As a start, the U.S. air offensive to support allied Syrian and Kurdish rebels fighting to take ISIS’s “capital,” Raqqa — grimly titled Operation Wrath of the Euphrates — killed more civilians this past May and June than the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, America’s brutal air campaign appears unhinged from any coherent long-term strategy. No one in charge seems to have the faintest clue what exactly will follow ISIS’s rule in eastern Syria. A Kurdish mini-state? A three-way civil war between Kurds, Sunni tribes, and Assad’s forces (with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic Turkey as the wild card in the situation)?
Which begs the question: Are American bombs actually helping?
Similarly, in Iraq it’s not clear that the future rule of Shia-dominated militia groups and others in the rubble left by the last years of grim battle in areas ISIS previously controlled will actually prove measurably superior to the nightmare that preceded them. The present Shia-dominated government might even slip back into the sectarian chauvinism that helped empower ISIS in the first place. That way, the U.S. can fight its fourth war in Iraq since 1991!
And keep in mind that the war for the Greater Middle East — and I fought in it myself both in Iraq and Afghanistan — is just the latest venture in the depressing annals of Washington’s geo-strategic thinking since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, along with the Saudis and Pakistanis, armed, funded, and supported extreme fundamentalist Afghan mujahedeen rebels in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union that eventually led to the 9/11 attacks. His administration also threw money, guns, and training — sometimes illegally — at the brutal Nicaraguan Contras in another Cold War covert conflict in which about 100,000 civilians died.
In those years, the United States also stood by apartheid South Africa — long after the rest of the world shunned that racist state — not even removing Nelson Mandela’s name from its terrorist watch list until 2008! And don’t forget Washington’s support for Jonas Savimbi’s National Movement for the Total Independence of Angola that would contribute to the death of some 500,000 Angolans. And that’s just to begin a list that would roll on and on.
That, of course, is the relatively distant past, but the history of U.S. military action in the twenty-first century suggests that Washington seems destined to repeat the process of choosing the wrong, or one of the wrong, sides into the foreseeable future. Today’s Middle East is but a single exhibit in a prolonged tour of hypocrisy.
Maybe it’s because most Americans just aren’t paying attention, or maybe we’re a nation of true believers, but it’s clear that most of us still cling to the idea that our country is a beacon of hope for the planet. Never known for our collective self-awareness, we’re eternally aghast to discover that so many elsewhere find little but insincerity in the promise of U.S. foreign policy. “Why do they hate us,” Americans have asked, with evident disbelief, for much of this century.
Here are just a few hints related to the Greater Middle East:
Post-9/11, the United States unleashed chaos in the region, destabilized it in stunning ways, and via an invasion launched on false premises created the conditions for ISIS’s rise. (That terror group quite literally formed in an American prison in post-invasion Iraq.) Later, with failing or failed states dotting the region, the U.S. response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II has been to admit — to choose but a single devastated country — a paltry 18,000 Syrians since 2011. Canada took in three times that number last year; Sweden more than 50,000 in 2015 alone; and Turkey hosts 3 million displaced Syrians.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s attempts to put in place a Muslim travel ban haven’t won this country any friends in the region either; nor will the president’s — or White House aide Stephen Miller’s — proposed “reform” of U.S. immigration policy, which would prioritize English-speakers, cut in half legal migration within a decade, and limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to sponsor relatives. How do you think that’s going to play in the global war for hearts and minds? As much as Miller would love to change Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty to “give me your well educated, your highly skilled, your English-speaking masses yearning to be free,” count on one thing: World opinion won’t miss the duplicity and hypocrisy of such an approach.
Guantánamo — perhaps the single best Islamist recruiting tool on Earth — is still open. And, says President Trump, we’re “keeping it open… and we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.” On this, he’s likely to be a man of his word. A new executive order is expected soon, preparing the way for an expansion of that prison’s population, while the Pentagon is already planning to put almost half a billion dollars into the construction of new facilities there in the coming years. No matter how upset the world gets at any of this, no matter how ISIS and other terror groups use it for their brand of advertising, no American officials will be held to account, because the United States is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court. Hypocritical? Nope, just utterly all-American.
And speaking of prisons, thanks to nearly unqualified — sometimes almost irrational — U.S. support for Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank increasingly resemble walled off penal complexes. You almost have to admire President Trump for not even pretending to play the honest broker in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He typically told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “One state, two state… I like whichever you like.” The safe money says Netanyahu will choose neither, opting instead to keep the Palestinians in political limbo without civil rights or a sovereign state, while Israel embarks on a settlement bonanza in the occupied territories. And speaking of American exceptionalism, we’re almost alone on the world stage when it comes to our support for the Israeli occupation.
Given the nature of contemporary American war-fighting (far away and generally lightly covered by the media, which has an endless stream of Trump tweets to fawn over), it’s easy to forget that American troops are still dying in modest numbers in the Greater Middle East, in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and — almost 16 years after the American invasion of that country — Afghanistan.
As for myself, from time to time (too often for comfort) I can’t help thinking of PFC Anderson and those I led who were so much less fortunate than him: Rios, Hensley, Clark, Hockenberry (a triple amputee), Fuller, Balsley, and Smith.
Sometimes, when I can bear it, I even think about the war’s countless Afghan victims. And then I wish I could truly believe that we were indisputably the “good guys” in our unending wars across the Greater Middle East because that’s what we owed those soldiers.
And it pains me no less that Americans tend to blindly venerate the PFC Andersons of our world, to put them on such a pedestal (as the president did in his Afghan address to the nation recently), offering them eternal thanks, and so making them and their heroism the reason for fighting on, while most of the rest of us don’t waste a moment thinking about what (and whom) they’re truly fighting for.
If ever you have the urge to do just that, ask yourself the following question: Would I be able to confidently explain to someone’s mother what (besides his mates) her child actually died for?
What would you tell her? That he (or she) died to ensure Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf, or to facilitate the rise of ISIS, or an eternal Guantanamo, or the spread of terror groups, or the creation of yet more refugees for us to fear, or the further bombing of Yemen to ensure a famine of epic proportions?
Maybe you could do that, but I couldn’t and can’t. Not anymore, anyway. There have already been too many mothers, too many widows, for whom those explanations couldn’t be lamer. And so many dead — American, Afghan, Iraqi, and all the rest — that eventually I find myself sitting on a bar stool staring at the six names on those bracelets of mine, the wreckage of two wars reflecting back at me, knowing I’ll never be able to articulate a coherent explanation for their loved ones, should I ever have the courage to try.
Fear, guilt, embarrassment… my crosses to bear, as the war Anderson and I fought only expands further and undoubtedly more disastrously. My choices, my shame. No excuses.
Here’s the truth of it, if you just stop to think about America’s wars for a moment: It’s only going to get harder to look a widow or mother in the eye and justify them in the years to come. Maybe a good soldier doesn’t bother to worry about that… but I now know one thing at least: I’m not that.