On Contact: Truth of war with Danny Sjursen
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses ‘Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge’ with Danny Sjursen, a combat veteran and West Point graduate.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to “On Contact.” Today, we discuss the book “Ghost Riders of Baghdad” with Danny Sjursen, a combat veteran and West Point graduate.
Danny Sjursen: We talk a lot about moral courage at West Point. It’s a term they throw around, but they’ve largely hijacked it. It is much harder, in a lot of ways, to speak out against the tide. And, obviously, you’ve done that through your entire career, and there are real costs—emotional, professional—and it’s a difficult thing. And I think that the fact that it’s so rare—I mean, name 5 generals who’ve spoken out publicly against these wars, even in retirement, and you’d be hard-pressed. It’s a difficult thing, but I think that it’s worth the cost because it would truly be obscene not to. And so at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I feel like this right now is more than just lapsed Catholic penance. This is sort of the most important duty I think I’ve ever done for my nation. And it’s funny that when you do that sort of work, you’re quickly labeled as anti-nation, anti-American.
CH: Those who know war detest the empty jingoism. The abstract words of “glory,” “honor,” and “patriotism” used to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies that generals and politicians do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen and generals who make wars but do not know war. They know that war is a state of almost pure sin, with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism and is a turning-away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence as well as the attraction of the God-like power that comes with a license to kill with impunity. But the truth about war always comes out too late, when those maimed by war unpack their suffering, what it was like to taste death, to watch the good and the innocent die. And by then, few listen. We are assured by the war-makers with each new military adventure that these stories have no bearing on the glorious, violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we the public prefer not to look. Danny Sjursen, a graduate of West Point, an army major who did combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, in his book “Ghost Riders of Baghdad” struggles like so many who come home burdened by the hammer blows of war to speak an unpleasant truth we ignore at our peril. He joins me from his home in Kansas. So, Danny, I once read an Army study that said that people who experience combat suffer the same kind of emotional trauma as someone who has a car accident in which their best friend is killed. Would you say that’s an accurate description of what it’s like to go through combat?
DS: Yeah, to a large extent, it is, for a couple of reasons. One—there’s the obvious survivor’s guilt issue, you know. It’s a platitude now, but “Why am I home in Colorado Springs, you know, when 4 members of the platoon are not?” in my case. And then, also, there’s the randomness of a car accident, the uncontrollable feeling, which I think drives some of that survivor’s guilt. So, yeah, absolutely. And folks respond to it differently. Some people just black out and go silent. Some people become more jingoistic in order to sort of justify what the heck we just lost these friends for. And then I think a minority of us just feel it’s obscene to not question the war in general.
CH: I want to talk a little bit about that, because you write about it in the book. Your squad had, I think—what is it, 20 members? Very small. This was in Iraq. You were a First Lieutenant. So you lose 2 to combat, killed; 1 very badly wounded—I think became, what, a paraplegic or—and 1 goes home on leave and kills himself. Right? One of the members of the unit, I think, after you come home kills himself? Is that correct? So I mean, a very high percentage of people who are, you know, even if it’s by their own hand, destroyed by that war. And, uh…you write at length about—there was one particular soldier you were particularly close to. What is that guilt about? Because, you know—what are you—you blame yourself, obviously. In the book, you blamed yourself as kind of the commander of the squad, but it’s more than that.
DS: Yeah. You know, my initial response was, you know, to make it about me. I mean, some of that is utterly selfish and self-righteous. Just by the merits, what sort of happened was that, you know, I was platoon leader, like you mentioned. I had about 19 guys. We had 50% combat casualties, killed and wounded, plus the suicides. But on the particular night, January 25, 2007, where a Shia militia had set off, you know, what supposedly is an Iranian-made EFP, I had made what I felt were two mistakes—one rational, one a little more irrational. We made a bad turn and went down a street I didn’t want to. And, you know, I chose not to correct the sergeant leading in the first truck. I didn’t want to undermine his authority. And I guess I just gambled that it would be fine ‘cause it usually was. So that was a tactical error, you know, that I lived with. And then the other was that Alex Fuller—you know, on my bracelet, probably the soldier I was closest to, from New Bedford, Massachusetts. I know you know that area fairly well. Yeah, I had allowed him to leave my crew, where he had been the gunner on the Humvee, and go and be a dismounted squad leader. So what that meant was he was in the front vehicle in front of me, so, obviously, he was killed. And you develop these narratives, and a lot of it’s self-centered. I think I’ve let a lot of that go, partly through writing the book and the catharsis of that. But I think that in a general sense, there’s still the guilt that, you know, you were in command, everything that happens is yours. But more than that, at a macro level, I had gone into the Iraq war still kind of a believer, and so I feel a guilt about having not been against that war from the start. And so I do feel complicit, like I think almost all Americans are ‘cause this is done in our name, whether we admit it or not.
CH: I want to—I lost my closest friend, Kurt Schork. I worked with him for 10 years in Iraq and Bosnia and Kosovo. He was killed in Sierra Leone in an ambush with another friend of mine. And I always felt that somehow one had to live for the dead, in a way, that the guilt—I wasn’t even in Sierra Leone when he was killed—but in some sense, they become these kind of phantom presences in your life. Is that your experience as well?
DS: Absolutely. And I’ve gone through phases with this. You know, I’ve handled it differently. I named my son after Alex as well as James and Michael, who had also been killed. You know, that was symbolic, but in some ways, I have, like, a walking 11-year-old reminder there. And I’ve had dark times, dealt with, you know, depression and some serious, you know, some substance stuff, but in my better times—and I’m in a really good phase right now—I do think to myself that we have to, like, live for those who just didn’t get a chance.
CH: How long did it take you before you realized the kind of fiasco that Iraq was after you were deployed?
DS: Not long at all. It’s funny you say “fiasco” because my Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Phillips had actually told us that he had just read “Fiasco” by Tom Ricks right before deployment and even talked about it in Kuwait. So even he was having some doubts—tactical, you know, more than strategic. By November—by late November, which is only a month into, like, leading my own patrols, I think the place that I was at was realizing that this was a civil war. General Casey and the Pentagon were lying about that, saying it wasn’t. And I began to realize we can’t win. And so my evolution started out, I’m embarrassed to say, by saying, “Well, we shouldn’t be here because we can’t win. This is a fiasco tactically and operationally.” Only later, though, at the end of that war and then especially into Afghanistan, did I start to say, “We created this problem and shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” And then only later than that, after Afghanistan, was it, “This is an empire. This is systemic. The warfare state is the problem.” So I think—you know, I was talking to Larry Wilkerson yesterday, and we described how we had a very similar trajectory, and I’m a little embarrassed of it.
CH: He was called—I just wanted to interrupt. He was a Vietnam veteran, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff.
DS: That’s right, and we talked about how two gen—you know, he’s 75 years old. I’m 36. Two different wars. And we were both sort of embarrassed by how long it took us to have the epiphany, if such a thing exists. But it was gradual. It’s a gradual thing.
CH: What did you learn? I mean, you came out of West Point, the Honor Code, you know, this long—venerating this long military tradition. Oh, I remember when I was at West Point, seeing a portrait of Robert E. Lee in his Confederate uniform in the library, which kind of threw me. And so that experience, where, you know, it’s almost the church of the military, that’s different than just coming in as a kid from New Bedford. And so how much of a kind of existential clash was that for you?
DS: It was a huge problem of identity to become sort of a dissenter. You know, coming out of West Point—it’s a national sacred cow. You know, I found that of all my writing, some of the articles that have gotten me the most pushback and hate are any time that I criticized West Point as an institution. And I think that is because it is a sort of a national treasure in a lot of people’s minds. Leaving that behind and questioning it—I mean, I lost 50% of my friends and colleagues, and it was difficult personally. Because if I’m not a soldier, what am I? Just two quick things that you mentioned. You mentioned the Honor Code. Of course, the class of ’86 at West Point is infused in this administration. And Pompeo actually made a joke—Secretary of State Pompeo—about the Honor Code when he was at the CIA. He said, “Oh, you know, well, they taught us not to lie, cheat, or steal, but we do that every day in the CIA.” And then a quick note on the Confederacy, which I think is relevant in this moment of, you know, protests against racial violence. I used to, when I taught at West Point in 2014-’16, I would drive from Lee Housing Area or near Lee Housing Area down Lee Road—
CH: Ha ha ha!
DS: past Lee Barracks on the way to my office to teach American History. That’s true. That’s true. That’s all factual.
CH: I want to talk about courage, because you talk about it in the book, and I thought it was a really good point that “courage is never a constant.” This idea—first of all, we know that people who remain in combat for--you know, this was especially studied in World War II, 25 days, the whole unit as a psychological breakdown. So the idea that everyone has a breaking point, but also it’s uneven. Some days, you go out and have courage, and some days you don’t. And you do write quite honestly about that using yourself as an example. Talk about that.
DS: You know, I think my misunderstanding was that there are brave people and there are cowards. And I don’t know if the institution of West Point kind of built that into you, but maybe that’s part of where it came from, but maybe it was just that I watched war movies my whole life. You know, that’s what I did, right, and wild west films. That’s part of why I ended up at West Point. In combat, what I found is that, you know, while there’s maybe a 10% minority that just, like, always kind of shirking from combat and maybe 10% that are straight adrenaline junkies, most of us were very halting and non-linear and inconsistent in our behavior. So, you know, there were times where I ran through bullets to, you know, get to a wounded guy. I don’t know what the heck I was really gonna do there ‘cause I’m not a medic. And then there were times that I largely kind of, you know, hid behind my Humvee and tried to figure out what’s the next move. And so some days, you go home and you go back to your base and you reassess your actions. And I feel like you do an after-action report--as we call it in the military, AAR--on your courage every day. And I really didn’t forgive myself sometimes for my poor behavior in certain instances. And then other times, more than proud of myself, I was, like, wondering if I manufactured these memories. Did I really do that?
CH: I’m gonna pick up on that when we come back from our break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with combat veteran Danny Sjursen.
CH: Welcome back to “On Contact.” We continue our conversation with combat veteran Danny Sjursen. So let’s pick up on courage, which—I mean, first of all, in combat, what you do is often instinctual. You don’t have time to think about it. So I was in a situation in the Sudan where a bunch of soldiers—I was with my very close friend, a reporter from the “Wall Street Journal.” They clicked the safeties--it was at night—off their weapons, which meant they were getting ready to fire, and I instinct—I’m ashamed of it. I was a couple paces behind him. I instinctively stepped behind him so that—he was a close friend of mine—so the bullets would go through his body first. And you can instinctually in combat at the same—on the other end carry out acts of supposedly heroism or courage, but I think we have to explore the nature of the combat high. Well, first of all, you’re terribly sleep-deprived. You’re pumped up on adrenaline. Often times, I found that in combat situations, you can be very cavalier, I mean, even kind of laughing and joking in a bizarre, dangerous situation. And at least my experience was so much of that just was—seemed to be chemical. It certainly wasn’t premeditated.
DS: Absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned sort of the dark humor, dryness. I mean, it’s incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever heard funnier jokes from, you know, even Dave Chappelle that I’ve heard from, you know—
CH: Which is almost always sexual, by the way.
DS: Right, right. Oh! Oh, yeah. And some are homoerotic, of course. I was only in male units only back in—
CH: Right, right, right.
DS: No, it was—there’s a dark humor. There’s a sort of bravado of sarcasm that comes out. But you’re right. A lot of it is chemical. And I think that Tim O’Brien, who writes fiction that based on his own experience in Vietnam, talks a lot about the hazy nature of combat remembrances and the way that you almost seem to black out and then you wonder what was real and what wasn’t. I found that to be the case. And talking to my peers, mostly the other platoon leaders, we sort of—we had, like, a moment where we were like, “Oh, wow, you feel that, too?” ‘Cause I think a lot of us were a little almost embarrassed until we were able to discuss that. And, you know, that was one of the things about—they talked camaraderie in combat, but it is real. Even in illegal and unethical wars, it’s a thing.
CH: Well, the camaraderie is real. We had it among war correspondents. One of the things I miss—it’s not friendship, as Jay Glenn Gray points out in “Warriors’ Reflections on Men in Battle.” It’s something very different, and I think often times veterans will try and re-create it after they get home, usually through alcohol, and it never works. All of these people that you are quite willing to risk your life for, who you think you’ve never had this kind of bond with before, once the external threat is gone and the bonding of the unit is gone, become strangers to you.
DS: It’s so true. You mentioned alcohol, and I’ll just start there. I’m of the opinion that we actually trained—I mean, they’re changing the culture a little now, but mostly on the veneer. We almost, like, trained for combat through drinking. I mean, every unit camaraderie event—they even called them that, right, like camaraderie events--involved, like, who can drink the most. And I was in the cavalry, right, like white scouts. So we had these Stetson cavalry hats from the Indian wars. We would, like, force the new lieutenants to drink everything out of them. And it was almost like pushing yourself to the limit before combat almost to build that camaraderie. And then, of course, afterwards, it has even a darker flow. As for becoming strangers, it’s really a difficult thing. I still visit or some of my sergeants will visit me a couple times a year, and it’s wonderful. And I think they’ll be OK with me saying this. When they leave after a wild night now, I’m relieved in a way, not because I don’t love them, but because I don’t know them and they don’t know me. And there’s something missing, and we can’t re-create it. And the journey to try is actually kind of harmful sometimes.
CH: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, they’re having a reunion for correspondents who covered the war in Sarajevo, but I won’t go because I know it will just be people drinking themselves into oblivion, trying to re-create something that can’t be recaptured. I want to talk about the military. What, in your whole trajectory—how many years were you in the military? It was quite a—was it 18 or—it was a while, right?
DS: Yeah, just under 18 years, including my West Point time, where technically you’re active duty there on, like, ROTC or something.
CH: What did you learn about the military?
DS: Well, I certainly learned two key things, first. One—loyalty is prized above anything else. They say it’s to the institution, but often times, it’s to something much smaller—an individual leader, an individual unit, stepping outside the bounds of how they define loyalty. You will be smacked down, especially if you embarrass them, which is worse, actually, than being tactically incompetent. And that’s an important point. I mean, truly, you will get in more trouble in the military, I found, for speaking out, out of turn, saying the wrong thing to a reporter. Nobody wants journalists around them because they’re afraid they’ll be quoted and they’ll get in trouble. That’s a big deal. You can get soldiers killed through rank incompetence and still get promoted. That’s OK. And then the second thing I learned is that the anti-intellectual bent in the military remains. And it was not meaningfully changed by the faux intellectuals who supposedly took over mid-Iraq war surge, and I’m talking about the Petraeuses and the McChrystals here. They did not meaningfully alter the anti-intellectual bent. These are not readers, largely, and they do not understand or really particularly care to understand—the majority, I mean—of the countries that we, you know, police, occupy, purport to secure.
CH: Well, McChrystal and Petraeus—these are media creations, really, in terms of their public persona and—
DS: Well, it—a little easier.
CH: I mean, a figure like Petraeus, you know, he’s very adept at handling the bureaucracy and promoting himself, including within the press. But as you write in your book, the whole idea that he saved Iraq through the surge is a lie.
DS: It’s causematic. It was meant to be from the start. This is a guy who cultivated the media throughout his career. I mean, even as a Captain, we’re talking, you know—and it wasn’t just him. These guys thought they could use the media rather than the other way around, and they were fairly adept at it. And of course, most of the mainstream media played ball. And here’s the thing that I think is interesting. Most media reporting of Petraeus, and McChrystal in particular—‘cause they led both wars, both surges—focused on character and anecdotal minutiae rather than policy. What are these guys really selling America? Will their strategy work? Is it a strategy at all? Instead, you had all these stories about “Oh, McChrystal is such an ascetic. You know, he runs 10 miles every morning to the Council of Foreign Relations.” That kind of reporting, actually, I thought was dangerous and misleading because you’re right—they were media creations, self-cultivated especially in the case of Petraeus.
CH: Well, and also, you know, the narrative that they spun out was not true.
DS: And it was based on a misunderstanding of history. What they did is they cherry-picked these supposed success stories from counterinsurgencies, particularly the British models in, like, Malaya. And what they never did was two things—they never complicated it by showing why these individual cases might have been unique, and then they never took a broader political strategic narrative to show that in all of these cases, the ultimate outcomes politically, which supposedly is what matters in war—said, you know, Klaus Witz—politically, they really didn’t pan out. So they just cherry-picked this history, and that’s what I call “faux intellectualism.” In fact, if you read Petraeus’ Princeton dissertation on Vietnam, it’s wildly wrong, and I’m not afraid to say that. And the consensus of Vietnam scholars would agree. It’s nonsense and it’s myth.
CH: Let’s talk a little bit about the wars themselves. We’re pushing two decades now. I think by any metric, even within the military, they would have to say we’ve lost the war in Afghanistan. Iraq has been turned into a proxy state for Iran. Why do they continue? You know, why don’t they stop?
DS: This is a difficult question, and I don’t pretend to have the perfect answer because I’m left with that question as well. For example, nobody in the military that I know talks about victory anymore. They would laugh at you, even at the highest levels. No one even pretends that what we’re doing is gonna be ultimately successful, but that comes back to some of that loyalty stuff. So I think there’s two forces at work. The military complies because it’s what the military does. That’s the culture. That’s the code. To step outside of it is anathema. The second thing is that there are other interests, and they’re not the sergeants from New Bedford. There are other interests who have a professional and a pecuniary benefit from these wars. And so I wrote sort of a piece that I thought was instructive on the West Point Class of ’86, where I showed that these folks, whether they’re at the top of the Pentagon, but most of them are, like, CEOs or working in DoD as civilians, you know, they’re profiting, again, not just with money but also professionally from these wars. So the military industrial complex is nebulous and clichéd, but it is real, and I think it’s much broader because Eisenhower wanted to include the Congress. I would include the media, academia, and a number of other things. It is no accident that so many CEOs come out of these West Point classes, and a lot of them are even in Big Pharma, which you could look at it and say, “Oh, that has nothing to do with the war, but I would disagree.
CH: I mean, you write in the book—you ask, “Why is it that essentially junior officers—“I don’t know if a major is a junior officer, but—“Why isn’t—why don’t you have these generals getting up and speaking out on what they know?” which is the kind of futility of these endless conflicts. But of course, once they finish the military, they go straight to Raytheon or Halliburton. And that’s not in the book, but I wonder if that’s one of the major reasons they just keep silent. It’s not in their financial interest to stop this.
DS: Well, the revolving door is also very real. When I wrote that Class of ’86 article, I talked about how colonels and generals, in real cases, real people that I mentioned by name, they would leave, for example, an air defense artillery job, where their job, you know, at a high level was to deal with the Patriot missile system or the theater air defense. And then the next day--I mean, literally the next day--after retirement, go work for Raytheon or Lockheed on those same programs. That’s a big part of it, but I would say that it’s important to understand that personal motivations often do go beyond just economic determinism, although I think that’s big, because it’s a culture, and it’s an identity you’re giving up. These generals—they go live in retirement communities in Florida that are all generals. It’s an actual thing that they socialize with other generals. They may even be a little bit of a media voice. And to give that up, to leave the crew, is a very difficult thing to do because they’re going to impugn your character if you do, and I know a little about that at a lower level.
CH: I once visited a retirement community of CIA agents in Maine, of all places! You know, a few hundred of them from all—but you’re right. It is—it is a culture, and it’s a fraternity. And just to close, you know, I saw a lot of physical courage in war, very little moral courage, which I think you display, which is much harder.
DS: I agree with that. You know, we talk a lot about moral courage at West Point. It’s a term they throw around, but they’ve largely hijacked it. It is much harder, in a lot of ways, to speak out against the tide. And, obviously, you’ve done that through your entire career, and there are real costs—emotional, professional—and it’s a difficult thing. And I think that the fact that it’s so rare—I mean, name 5 generals who’ve spoken out publicly against these wars, even in retirement, and you’d be hard-pressed. It’s a difficult thing, but I think that it’s worth the cost because it would truly be obscene not to. And so at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I feel like this right now is more than just lapsed Catholic penance. This is sort of the most important duty I think I’ve ever done for my nation. And it’s funny that when you do that sort of work, you’re quickly labeled as anti-nation, anti-American.
CH: That was former combat veteran, West Point graduate Danny Sjursen.