On Contact: America's endless war
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Erik Edstrom, combat veteran and former platoon commander, about America's endless war. Edstrom is a decorated soldier who led combat missions in Afghanistan. His memoir is ‘Un-American: A Soldier's Reckoning Of Our Longest War’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss America's endless wars with combat veteran, Eric Edstrom.
Erik Edstrom: They are reportedly killing multiple civilians which was identified from a second UAV which was unmanned and had video evidence of dead civilians. And when I returned back to the base, the U.S. Military and my battalion covered it up and the report said what was the battle damage assessment and it was written in large capital letters, "UNKNOWN" and that was done specifically to not admit that this event happened and to avoid any further investigation, and that was the moment for me when my experience in this war changed radically.
CH: "The U.S Government sent me to Afghanistan at the age of 23," writes West Point graduate Eric Edstrom in his memoir "Un-American: A Soldier's Reckoning of Our Longest War." "I protected myself and three-quarters of the men in my platoon. I endangered and hurt many. I lived in mud shacks and trolled dirt roads for IEDs, either with my tires or, worse, my boots. We did dangerous humdrum unilateral patrols without conducting any meaningful training with Afghan security forces. I accomplished nothing that one could consider worth fighting for. I wasted a lot of taxpayer money. The Afghans I met either didn't want us there or wanted us to stay long enough to relieve us of our money taxpayer dollars that the military was aching to spend on exorbitant military contracts, knowingly lining the pockets of warlords, guilty of human rights abuses. On the ground, the war felt mostly dubious, illegal in scope, and unjust in terms of proportionality. Many of my friends died or became permanently handicapped. I personally buried one of my West Point classmates in Arlington National Cemetery, handing the folded flag to his crying mother. Another one of my soldiers killed himself after returning home. One of my soldiers is serving life in prison after murdering and dismembering the body of someone whom he never knew in a bathtub in Oregon." Joining me to discuss America's longest war and a Syrian memoir of his time as a Platoon Commander in Afghanistan is Eric Edstrom. So you begin the book in--well, you actually talk about your childhood a little bit, but you begin the book in--at West Point which creates a certain image that you buy into in terms of the mythology of war. So, let's first begin with that myth of war and that indoctrination that you went through as a cadet.
EE: Sure. Well, thanks for having me, Chris. And when it comes to sort of mythology, the way that I think about it is that in order to feel as though you are on the right side of things in political violence, you need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people you are fighting and that the people you are killing in some way deserve it, and that they are "killable." And the way that one achieves this is through a form of indoctrination and that is precisely what you get in the military to make and to sort of alleviate the conscience when you are faced with that situation where you are fighting somebody who has legitimate grievances to fight against you.
CH: And talk a little bit about the process of hazing, which is extreme. They don't call it hazing but that's what it is, and each year would you go in--what's your first year, are you called a plebe I think?
EE: That's right.
CH: And all of the upperclassmen are kind of tormenting you in all sorts of institutionalized ways, the role that that plays. And then just mention briefly because you write in the book about how by the time you were in your senior year as a cadet you actually engaged in that kind of behavior.
EE: Yeah, absolutely. And then I imagine that in terms of hazing, if you were to stretch out the timeline a bit longer that what counts as hazing today is far different than what it was in, say, 1930, and that it was far more extreme and far more severe in past decades. However, there is something still in it about a willingness to go about your job without questioning things too much or too deeply. One is sort of a protocol followership that's indoctrinated where you are given a set of instructions and it is your job to execute on them no matter how ludicrous or ridiculous this may be, whether this is, you know, making your socks smile in the way that in which you fold them, or you tape your underwear into perfect little rectangles, this is all sort of part of this institutionalization where the objective is not necessarily to make you a better officer, because if you really wanted to do that, you would ask, is this going to help me down the road? And folding underwear probably does not achieve that, but what it does achieve is a willingness to follow instructions without question which, I think, can be rather dangerous.
CH: Well, you end up in Afghanistan protecting a section of a road solely so supplies can be delivered to you to protect a section of a road and so the absurdity of the small things that were inculcated you into West--at West Point are--become manifest in very large things in terms of that moment in the military.
EE: Yeah. Yeah. I think what is important to recognize there is that the type of thinking that I refer to is sort of downstream thinking. It is your job to focus on your area of operations and what is within your realm. You're not supposed to think too much about political issues or why we are at war at all or why are these people fighting against us. Those are sort of upstream issues for politicians and you're not supposed to think about that, that's outside the purview of most folks in the military. And where that became evident, as you mentioned, is this circular loop referred to as Operation Highway Babysitter where we would drive up and down a road. And to frame it for you, you know, at this point in time, my platoon had received about 25% casualties and this was not unusual within the battalion. So, the biggest threat was roadside bombs or IEDs buried in the road or next to the road and so our battalion was sent on this circular self-licking ice cream cone of a mission where you drive up and down the road to protect it and basically see if you get blown up. And if you do not get blown up, the road is at least momentarily free or free and clear, allowing the logistics convoys to resupply you so that you could continue doing this, and you could see that this is just a circular loop. But the problem is that it's impossible to protect and secure all of the roads all of the time. So, they would still slip IEDs in and you would still end up getting blown up. And in a very sort of ironic fashion, the way that the sort of commerce would work is that when we would get blown up by an IED and the road would be destroyed, quite often the United States would offer money to local contractors to rebuild the road but these local contractors feared for their lives, too, and it was common practice well-documented that they would then pay as a tribute to the Taliban money so that the Taliban would not harass or kill them, which then the Taliban would use to buy more bomb-making materials to continue the mission. So in conclusion, we are indirectly funding the Taliban to kill us. That is the circle that you experience as a soldier and it's absolutely infuriating.
CH: When I covered the war in El Salvador, A.I.D was pumping in a lot of money and the same thing, they had to pay off the FMLN rebels not to burn down the A.I.D built schools. And in fact, the rebels negotiated a bit where they were allowed to go into the morning and teach, you know, Marxists and revolutionary literature of the kids in order to keep the schools up and the schools were there so the visiting congress people could come see them. It was exactly, you know, wars have a kind of commonality to them. Let's talk about the moment you deploy. So, you come in really having been indoctrinated, I think, and believing what it is you have been told about the military, about the mission. How quickly did it go sour and why?
EE: Yeah, it's a good question. I think that when I deployed, my idealism was mostly intact. I had just finished West Point. You have some creeping questions about what it is that you are participating in this war. Never did i sort of think that this is the conflict where there's never been a time in American history where more was spent accomplishing less but you did get a sense from hearing from older classmates that graduated maybe a year or two before of, you know, the, sort of, the horrors and the self-defeating nature of the conflict in which you were going to participate but you still want to hold on to some shred of belief because you're investing a lot of yourself. You're investing years of your life, your, sort of, conscience, your physical body, your social relationships are all being invested in this career and you really want to believe that the purpose for which your service is being used is a good one. There is a lot writing on that. So when--in that moment, on that day when you deploy with your sort of 30 soldiers to what was referred to as the heart of darkness or the green death for the district that we were in, it was quite literally the district which was the spiritual heartland of the Taliban where Muhammad Omar once lived, and resided, and teached. So this is a place that was not permissive. And, you know, upon arriving there, you realize that these people have had weapons aimed at them for years. These people have seen drone strikes kill a farmer without cause, you know, and maybe a hollow apology. What I saw was the Arkansas National Guard shooting a bus full of civilians excusing it and effectively victim blaming the bus and the bus driver for driving too close to the American convoy instead of punishing and at least, at the very least, investigating thoroughly with an Afghan perspective what happened on the ground. Often, those voices are sort of excluded. And over a period of time, which really culminated in this moment when I was on patrol with my platoon out in a grape field and we were told that there was some suspicious fighting aged males, as they're referred to, and we dismount and walk into this field and we are ambushed, and there are machine gun rounds fired at us and we fire back at them. Eventually, through overwhelming fire superiority, they break contact and a pair of Kiowa helicopters that we called on comes on station. We tell them that we do not have positive identification of any weapons and cannot identify specifically where the enemy is. But from their vantage point, we hope that they might be able to identify them. So, they racetrack around a village and end up firing all of their munitions, the rockets, .50 caliber machine guns into a series of mud buildings and they are reportedly killing multiple civilians, which was identified from a second UAV, which was unmanned, and had video evidence of dead civilians. And when I returned back to the base, the U.S. Military and my battalion covered it up and the report said what was the battle damage assessment and it was written in large capital letters "UNKNOWN" and that was done specifically to not admit that this event happened and to avoid any further investigation and that was the moment for me when my experience in this war changed radically.
CH: Great. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about America's longest war with former platoon commander and combat veteran, Eric Edstrom. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about America's longest war with combat veteran, Eric Edstrom. So let's talk about the high command, the senior officers, because throughout the book, there's a constant tension between you. You cite this incident, you are fully aware that there are large numbers of civilian casualties. This isn't the only moment, but the careerism on the part of let's call them, you know, the colonels and on up, for those of you who are on the ground, it creates a kind of tension between you and them. Can you--can you explain that?
EE: I think that there are different motivations, and I would generally--and this is my thought is meeting most field grade officers and most flag officers, general officers, I'm usually fairly impressed. However, I think there are moments where when we are talking about personal courage and morality, that there is a willingness to break with what would ordinarily be taught at an--at an institution like West Point and report these things, as you are taught to do, as this is what honorable behavior is and instead sort of push it under the rug and exclude it as this is an unfortunate incident or that there was still a certain amount of doubt that we couldn't be sure if they were, you know, enemy or not. So, let's just label them as such because that would be more convenient for us and we won't have to undergo any further, sort of, investigation. So I think oftentimes, when you have the power to be sort of the judge, jury, and executioner of your own case, with very little oversight because frankly, there isn't a journalist attached to every single platoon that's operating out there reporting on what's happening. And when you're in that position with a group of impoverished people on the other side who don't speak English particularly well and you have the ability to write the reports in this rural part of Afghanistan about what did and what did not happen, sometimes, the worst comes out. And I saw this multiple times in terms of reporting civilian deaths and sometimes celebrating civilian deaths.
CH: I would just say that any journalist who is embedded with a combat unit who did report those kinds of atrocities within a few hours would no longer be embedded, that is the kind of very dirty quid pro quo between embedded journalists and the military which is why I didn't embed. You end up having, I think, a great deal of empathy for the people you're fighting. You write, "The people who are trying to kill me weren't international terrorists. They weren't attacking me because they hate our freedoms or some other bull [BLEEP] Bush era line, they were angry farmers and teenagers with legitimate grievances. Their loved ones breathing and laughing minutes before had been transmuted before their eyes into something unrecognizable, like someone hit by a pinata full of raw hamburger meat. They were now little more than a stringy sinew and bloody mashed potatoes dressed up in tattered rags. That's what rockets fired from a pair of U.S. Kiowa helicopters do to civilians." I think it's important that people understand the immense destructive power of this kind of weaponry especially, once you get up to crews, hellfire missiles, the kill range is a staggering. And if you haven't been around those kinds of weapons, you don't get a sense of their destructive power, and I think you do a very good job in the book of talking about those weapon systems and how indiscriminate that killing becomes as soon as you deploy them.
EE: I mean, by and large I--when you talk about the scale and scope of those weapon systems, we did not, as a unit, use indiscriminate weapons very often. And what I'm referring to for instance is that there was quite a lot of restriction on the use of, say, mortars. Mortars, which can be quite dumb and in the course of trying to bracket an enemy position, you drop it 600 meters too far and then--or, you know, maybe not that far, 200 meters and you continue to bracket it in. But in the course of those errors, it's very easy or possible to kill civilians. And for that exact reason, the military was more cautious about using them and did not use those as a--as a first option, more like a last option. So I think generally speaking, the types of weapon systems being used are more precise. That being said, the person who is sometimes making those decisions might be an Air Force UAV operator in Nevada who has never been on the ground, doesn't understand the social context of what it is like to be an Afghan, and what is misconstrued as suspicious behavior is completely normal, because they haven't lived in a place where the average salary is $2,000 a year and someone might be digging for something else or seeing sort of rudimentary farming at a--firsthand. And misconstrue farming as someone in placing an IED and they decide I'm going to kill them with this precision weapon. So, there is a lot of that as well. But I think the point which when you're talking about empathy that I really wanted to get across is that oftentimes in combat--and you can't fault the Americans or Afghan people because the logical decision for your side and the morally repugnant decision sometimes are the same. And that is the absurdity and sort of egregiousness of war where it makes sense if you are a platoon commander to protect a wounded soldier and try to evac them. This is somebody that you know and that you want to exfil for higher level care. And you don't know if by calling in close air support, whether you're going to kill civilians, so you have a decision to make where you know that someone will die if you take no action and some--and people you don't know might die if you do. And for that reason, oftentimes, tradeoffs are made where, to the best of their abilities, you know, soldiers and officers will make a decision which ends up killing 20, 30 civilians as I documented in the book when one of my friends, a former Green Beret Commander was killed. But that decision on their side makes sense. It also makes sense if you grew up in Afghanistan, if the birth lottery allocated Chris Hedges to Afghanistan and you watched this for 19 years and maybe a member of your family was killed you, too, would understand why they would resist and why they might want to fight back against an occupying force.
CH: You write "when I became capable of killing, I killed a part of my former self. I was absolutely and irreversibly changed. Indoctrination is a double declaration of what is gained and lost simultaneously. I gained an identity, military skills, and personal confidence. I was losing my future and my moral self." Talk about the cost for you.
EE: I think this is something I grapple with sort of still to this day. I returned back from Afghanistan. I spoke with mental health clinicians, which is sometimes a stigmatized thing to do. And when I returned back and you see that there's sort of a standard form, checklist form that you fill out, and it says something to the effect of have you experienced the following, yes, no. And all of mine were checked yes where it is. Have you seen civilians injured or killed? US soldiers injured or killed? Have you been shot at? Have you been in a vehicle that's been blown up? All these sorts of things. And, you know, after that experience, even the military said, you know, we--we have diagnosed you with PTSD from going through this experience of leading a platoon where about 25% became casualties. And it is something that, at least for a considerable amount of time, I thought about a lot and I still think about today which is I am not the same person as a result of this experience and I will not know the version of myself, perhaps a more gentle version, maybe a more creative version, maybe a happier version than the person that I became through this experience. And that's a large tradeoff and I think that people considering military service should really know about that, and that's why I chose to share my experiences hoping that they have what I call sort of informed consent, sort of similar to a medical language of you should know what are the range of possible outcomes from serving. One of which, because it doesn't have any ability to protect yourself, is that you cannot object to the individual war you are being sent to. A conscientious objector is one who doesn't believe in defense at all and that's not who I am I'm very happy to defend the national territory of the United States. But if you find yourself in what you believe is a war of aggression, there's very little that you can do. And that is something that sticks with you and it has stuck with marine veterans or, sorry, Vietnam veterans for a very long time and their stories are prevalent. And I think that the same thing will be true about the war on terror.
CH: You have a very heartbreaking moment where you visit a former West Point classmate very badly burned in Walter Reed Hospital. We have just two minutes left. Why is this war continuing? Twenty years, clearly a failure, why doesn't it stop? Why don't we withdraw?
EE: It's a difficult question to answer and I hope that the Biden administration will withdraw. I think that the question that should be posed is that how can a country that has dedicated over 6.4 trillion dollars nearly two decades of time and had a coalition of the most powerful militaries on earth, how is it possible that they cannot defeat a bunch of ragtag Taliban fighters? And if that's not possible after all of that investment, what makes us believe, as a nation, that spending more time, more money, more American lives, and especially because it's a far larger number Afghan civilian lives, what makes them believe that something is going to change? And I don't think they're going to get a rosy pronouncement at the end of that question.
CH: Do you think it's just contractors? There's too much money involved? Why do you think it perpetuates itself?
EE: I think it's a variety of things. I think it's probably there's an element of money for sure. I think there's also an element of pride that is hard to shake. There's also an element of the people who get hired for the positions to lead troops in combat are hired on the belief that they are going to win, not that they are going to lose. So that is why you have commander after commander after commander promising progress because that is what they promised to get the job. And so pronouncements of progress go back to the United States and people say, "Well, maybe we should keep going. There's progress being made. The commander says so." But as we--the Afghanistan papers have revealed, that's not true at all. So there is, I think, this sort of Pollyanna sort of element of belief that this is going to be a rosy story. And it's not and it never will be going forward. And I think that we just have to have the hard truth, tell it like it is, that we're not making progress, that we're harming American soldiers, the civilians and the American taxpayer, and we're losing an opportunity as a nation to do far more with those funds if we allocated them elsewhere.
CH: Great, thank you. That was Eric Edstrom, author of "Un-American: A Soldier's Reckoning of Our Longest War."