_ A veteran of Afghanistan suggests to us all that, in a country and
world besieged by the coronavirus, perhaps it’s truly time to come
up with a new definition of patriotism. _
The shadow of a U.S. soldier on patrol in Afghanistan’s Paktika
Province, near the border with Pakistan, in August 2005.Credit...,
Scott Eells for The New York Times
“Every day is a copy of a copy of a copy.” That meme, from the
moment when Edward Norton’s character in _Fight Club_ offers a
1,000-yard stare at an office copy machine, captures this moment
perfectly -- at least for those of us removed from the front lines of
the Covid-19 crisis. Isolated inside a Boston apartment, I typically
sought new ways to shake the snow globe, to see the same bubble -- the
same stuff -- differently.
Quarantine has entered a new season. The month of May has brought
daffodils and barbeque grills. Memorial Day is just around the corner.
And every Friday at 7:00 PM, residents in my neighborhood hang out of
their windows to bang pots and cheer until they get tired (usually,
about two minutes later). It’s a nice gesture to healthcare workers,
a contemporary doff of the cap, but does it change anything? Perhaps
it’s just another permutation of that old American truism: if
you’re getting thanked for your service, you’re in a job where
you’re getting shafted.
The war against President Trump’s “invisible enemy
[[link removed]]” spasms on and
we’re regularly reminded that healthcare workers, dangerously
ill-equipped [[link removed]],
must beg for personal protective equipment. But this Memorial Day, the
18th during America’s War on Terror, our national focus is likely to
shift, even if only momentarily, to the soldiers who are still
fighting and dying in a self-perpetuating war, now under pandemic
Reflecting on my own time as a soldier deployed to combat in
Afghanistan, I hope that Covid-19 causes us to redefine what
“patriotism” and “national security” really should mean. My
suggestion: If you want to honor soldiers this Memorial Day, start by
questioning the U.S. military.
With this on my mind, and all alone in that apartment, I knew exactly
where to look for inspiration.
Just before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May, 2009, I bought
a journal. It was brown, faux-leather, and fit in the hip pocket of
Army combat trousers. It wasn't particularly nice -- just something
you might pick up at Office Max.
Nonetheless, my soldiers ribbed me for it. "Dear diary," they
"No, no, this is a war journal," I would reply, imagining such a
distinction as sufficiently manly to overcome whatever stigma they had
when it came to this self-appointed diarist.
At first, journaling was a distraction. I captured images of my
platoon, a lovable assemblage of misfits and Marlboro men. But soon,
that journal acquired a more macabre tone, its lines filling with
stories of roadside bombs, shootouts, amputated limbs, and funerals
playing out in a page-by-page street fight of scribbles and
On a humdrum route-clearance patrol on our fourth day in-country,
before the unit of soldiers we were replacing even had a chance to
depart, my squad leader’s vehicle was catastrophically destroyed by
a roadside bomb. We loaded four broken, bloody, ketamine'd soldiers
onto an Air MEDEVAC helicopter en route to urgent care at Kandahar
Airfield. (At this rate, I realized, my platoon of 28 would be wiped
out within a month.)
I reassured the soldier who was most coherent that he was "going to be
okay." Truth was: I didn't know. And what did “okay” in
battlefield injury-speak even mean? A quadruple amputee with a pulse?
Years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or maybe, with
luck, merely a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation below
the knee, which my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital called "a
For this soldier, okay turned out to mean broken bones and lacerations
bad enough to send him home, but not bad enough to keep him there. He
was stitched-up and sent back to war five months later. When he
finally returned to America, in Oregon, he murdered and dismembered
[[link removed]] someone
he didn’t even know in a bathtub. Then he stole the dead man’s car
to rob a bank. He’s currently serving life in prison.
But such stories, however raw and urgent they felt, were small. We
were, after all, just one platoon in a big, ugly mess of a war,
committing acts of political violence against people we didn’t know
for reasons we didn’t fully understand.
Although I was told that I’d be “fighting terrorism” in
Afghanistan, most of the people our unit was killing turned out to be
teenagers or angry farmers with legitimate grievances, people tired of
America’s never-ending occupation of their land, tired of our
country’s contemptuous devaluation of Afghan lives. And frankly,
when I searched my own soul, I couldn’t blame them for fighting
back. Had I been in their shoes, I would have done the same.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the U.S. military did
not encourage me to think too much or too deeply about the morality of
the war I was fighting. A popular military aphorism was: “stay in
your lane.” And so I jotted down my real thoughts in private and
continued with the “mission,” whatever that was, since there
appeared to be no coherent plan or strategy, something fully
substantiated when, late last year, the _Washington Post_ released
“the Afghanistan Papers
secret and frank interviews by the office of the Special Inspector
General for Afghanistan with top U.S. commanders and officials.
“OPERATION HIGHWAY BABYSITTER”
That brown journal of mine lived through a lot and, at the end of my
deployment, it earned a just retirement at the bottom of a cardboard
box -- until recently, when, in the midst of self-isolation in the
Covid-19 moment, I excavated it from its resting place and brought it
into the light of day as if it were so many dinosaur bones.
The cover was a wreck, the pages, earth-stained and dog-eared.
Nonetheless, my chicken-scratched entries were enough to reconstruct
old, long-buried memories. Those pages cast into relief how far I've
come. Physically, I'm 6,632 miles away. Temporally, I'm a decade
older. But morally, I'm a completely different person.
The first two -- distance and time -- don’t add up to much. I've
returned home. I've gotten older. But what about the third? Why do I
look back on my role in that still never-ending war not as a hero or
as a well-intentioned participant, but as a perpetrator? And why, now,
do I feel like I was a genuine sucker?
In a sense, I already knew the answers to those questions, but I
wanted to revisit the journey I’d taken by flipping those pages past
coffee-ring stains and even dried blood. And here’s what I found: I
crossed my moral threshold on a dusty road, a glum bit of terrain I
watched over for 15 hours straight. The mission’s apt nickname,
scrawled in that journal, was "Operation Highway Babysitter."
It worked like this: we, the infantry, secured a road in Kandahar
Province, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry, so that
we could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply
us, _ad nauseam_ and in perpetuity. Such a system was mockingly
derided by my troops as a "self-licking ice cream cone."
Despite the effort we put into stopping IED -- that is, roadside bomb
-- emplacement, we neither stopped them, nor created anything that
might have passed for "progress." The problem with IEDs was simple
enough: we could watch some of the roads all of the time or all of the
roads some of the time, but never all of the roads all of the time.
Wherever we couldn’t patrol was precisely where the next one would
Quickly enough, we saw the futility of it all, yet what alternative
did we have? We belonged to the Army and so were destined to spend our
Afghan tour of duty playing human minesweepers.
Ox, my platoon sergeant, internalized his frustration. During
Operation Highway Babysitter, he cut a striking image of Oscar the
Grouch,_ _with a fat dip of chewing tobacco puckering his cheek. Just
above that egg-sized wad was a small scar from a bullet fragment that
had skipped off an Iraqi pavement during the 2003 invasion of that
country. One could say that Ox carried the war with him in the most
And if we weren’t getting blown up by insurgents, we were getting
shot by the Afghan National Police. No kidding. One hot afternoon, an
Afghan policeman, visibly high, shot my team leader, Brody, from six
feet away with a machine gun. The 7.62 mm bullet hit him in the torso,
a spot not covered by body armor. It was a negligent discharge and
Brody lived, but my whole platoon wanted to murder that policeman. We
didn’t, which seemed rather commendable.
Even as we became increasingly disillusioned, we remained soldiers,
trained to execute, however ludicrous the task. If we had to stay in
our lane, though, at least we wanted the satisfaction of fighting our
enemy face-to-face. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been
there, but the desire to fight hadn’t left us and, as it turned out,
we got our chance on Halloween 2009 -- a day caught vividly in that
brown journal of mine.
THE SOUND OF REVENGE
A couple of hours into highway babysitting that day, our stakeout was
interrupted by the sound of gunfire. We buttoned up the trucks and set
out for danger. When we arrived, the shooting had stopped. All we saw
were a few men -- maybe farmers, maybe insurgents -- in a large grape
field. It was hard to make out what they were doing, but there were no
weapons to be seen.
Armed only with speculation, there were no grounds (under the rules of
engagement we lived by) to shoot them, so our G.I. Joe energy began to
melt away and we were distinctly disappointed.
I concede that it’s a strange emotion to actually want to kill
someone, knowing there will be no repercussions for doing so -- except
possibly praise and maybe even medals if you’re successful. What’s
first degree attempted murder in the United States is just another day
at the office for an infantryman in combat. In five months, however,
my platoon had yet to run into a real firefight and we were aching to
kill some of those responsible for the plague of roadside bombs that
had decimated our battalion. We were amped, hungry for payback.
About 10 of us dismounted from the trucks. We moved into the field,
using a V-shaped, wedge formation, hoping the Afghans there knew
something about the resistance fighters. Fifteen seconds later our
world erupted in gunfire. Machine-gun rounds cut through the grape
vines, trimming the hedges around us. Immediately, I was mainlining
We pressed inward, shooting as we went, hoping to suppress the
resistance fighters and gain fire superiority. Some of my soldiers
hunkered down behind the remnants of a crumbly mud wall, others found
what cover they could: a little ditch, a mound of earth, anything amid
I turned to my forward observer, Brock. "Can we get rotary-wing assets
"Roger. Two Kiowas. Ten minutes."
Finally, real kinetic combat! I paused to look around. My soldiers
were sweating profusely and sucking wind, but miraculously there were
no casualties. The sound of the approaching OH-58 Kiowa attack
helicopters, codenamed "Shamus," confirmed our survival.
Jaws unclenched, lips loosened, eyes relaxed. My sweat-slick soldiers
chortled with relief. Today, we live. We talked the birds on station,
marking our position in the grape field with fluorescent VS-17 panels,
visible from the air. The pilots acknowledged. Then the two Kiowas
race-tracked around the grape fields, evidently spotting their targets
because they released a salvo of rockets on a nearby village. They
followed by strafing the area with their .50-caliber machine guns
until they had expended all their ammunition.
My soldiers erupted in cheers and I felt smug.
It was evening when we returned to Forward Operating Base Wilson after
that 15-hour patrol. I was haggard, worn, bleary-eyed. Ox walked over
to me. I had given him the day off because the patrol schedule was
"Ox, how was the rest?"
"I didn't do shit yesterday. Slept all day. It was great."
"Oh, yeah? You heard about the big firefight we got into?”
"I heard you guys were in contact, so I went to battalion headquarters
to watch the live video feed from Scan Eagle [an unarmed drone]. They
had a TV screen so we could watch you guys in the fight."
“You see how many guys were shooting at us, where were they
"Nope. I showed up a bit late, but neither Scan Eagle nor the Kiowas
could actually see the enemy."
My heart sped up. "Well, what the fuck were they shooting at? We had
no idea where the insurgents fled to -- only a general direction."
Ox offered a version of his nervous, graveyard-humor laugh. "Yeah, the
helicopters didn't have PID [positive identification] on anything.
Scan Eagle was zooming in on some dead lady in a blue burka and the
battalion XO [executive officer] said to Shamus, 'What the hell are
you shooting at?' Shamus said, 'Uhhhhh… we had reports of small-arms
coming from this direction.' The XO gets back on the radio to yell at
the pilots, 'Did you see weapons or have PID on anything at all?'
Shamus obviously didn't, so the response was, 'Uhmmmm… negative.'
The XO was pissed. He said, 'Well, I'm looking at three dead civilians
right now. Do you want to explain that?' Shamus said, 'Uhhhhh . . . I
guess they're enemy KIA [killed in action].'"
Anxiety turned to dread. How could they have made a mistake like that
and then justified the dead as "enemy KIA"? I dropped my equipment in
a heap inside my tent and walked to the company headquarters to fill
out the debrief paperwork. First, I looked at the SIGACT (significant
activity) whiteboard to see what the Army chose to report and it was
vague indeed: small-arms fire, grid location, calling for helicopter
air support. But the final column -- the punch line -- left me fuming.
Its header was "BDA," or "Battle Damage Assessment." And there, in
bold capital letters, was: "UNKNOWN."
No mention of civilian casualties. The Army had covered it up. I felt
urgently sick. Where was the honesty? Where was our morality? Where
was the “integrity [[link removed]]” -- an Army
value I was taught at West Point?
I wanted to give the military the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps
logging the civilian deaths as "unknown" had been a clerical error,
even if made at the exact moment when it would cover up homicide. But
I had already given so many other incidents a pass. All the things
that I’d let slide and tucked away suddenly shifted in their hiding
places. Standing before that whiteboard, I felt a crisis of
conscience. Repressing, forgetting, or deluding myself was no longer
And that was my awakening, faithfully recorded in that brown journal
still in my hands.
The Army never would investigate that incident either. It didn't
matter that I personally raised it with my battalion commander. I felt
betrayed and ashamed of my once-boyish excitement for war. In places
like Zhari District in Afghanistan, it was now clear to me that the
prevailing truth was whatever the U.S. military wanted it to be.
THE PRICE OF BLIND PATRIOTISM
When I returned home seven months later, I felt grateful but empty.
Just about everything in America looked the same, which felt rude,
given how much we had changed.
For those first six months after my return from war, thudding back
slaps and free beers from well-meaning civilians numbed my sense of
betrayal. But over time, I realized that all of this "thank you for
your service" stuff was just a culturally ingrained reflex, like
saying "bless you" to someone who sneezes. When it comes to our
military, the mantra of the public is: thank, don't think. To most of
them, war -- the war my friends died for -- is elevator music. Perhaps
Americans have generally forgotten that, almost 19 years after the
Afghan War began, numbers, names, and percentages don't go in the
graveyard, people do.
I don’t forget.
While serving in the U.S. Army Honor Guard, I helped bury Tyler
Parten, one of my best friends from West Point, in Arlington National
Cemetery. Like so many other fallen American soldiers, he was a good
and gentle man -- not a violent man -- and yet he died a violent death
on a mountain escarpment in Afghanistan, according to an officer from
I presented the folded flag to Tyler’s crying mother. After the
family left, I looked around and noticed all the freshly dug graves
that did not yet contain their occupants. And with more time and more
wars, those headstones will become just like all the other headstones.
And here’s the thing with Memorial Day: my memories don’t resemble
the tidy sacrifices that this country memorializes on that day each
year. Soldiers know the slaughterhouse; America knows chicken nuggets
-- lifeless things processed and commoditized, marketed and sold on
the cheap, and always worth whatever they cost.
Twenty-first-century American patriotism is crass, slippery, and
gross. It isn't about moral courage or speaking out; it's about
protecting and preserving corporate image and individual reputations.
American patriotism is sad-button Facebook emoticons and 20%-off
Memorial Day mattress sales.
But blithely tolerating a yearly moment of silence to think abstractly
about dead soldiers -- and assume that their deaths are part of an
unfortunate but necessary exchange to preserve American-style
"freedom" -- is not enough. It never has been.
Soldiers and veterans don't need priority boarding, 10% discounts at
gimmicky chain restaurants, or a few crinkled bills stuffed into a
charity's coffee can. What they need is a nation that can find the
courage and conviction to stop misusing their service. For 18 Memorial
Days, the American public has been complicit in allowing our troops to
be sent into a series of wars that everyone knows to be costly and
self-defeating, while simultaneously maintaining the audacious idea
that, in doing so, they "support the troops."
Believe me, that’s not patriotism. The most intimate betrayal is to
be sent to kill or die for nothing by your countrymen.
Maybe 2020 is the year when we finally look ourselves in the mirror
and admit it -- that we are really a nation of 330 million
bumper-sticker patriots willing to sell-out future generations to pay
for endless war, no matter who gets killed, as long as someone in the
Pentagon believes they deserve it. Maybe this year the American public
will finally realize that the war on terror drags on because the
United States is perfectly arranged to give us that outcome, because
Americans are not allowed to question the military or military
spending. The act of doing so is taboo or, as I titled my new
If we don’t like this reality, it should be our civic responsibility
to change the forces that guide this nation. We must redefine what
patriotism and national security truly stand for. To confront real
threats to humanity -- like climate change -- we must grow in our
capacity for cooperation, not conflict. Maybe 2020 will finally be the
AFTER 18 MEMORIAL DAYS, WHEN WILL WE EVER LEARN?
After an hour, I realized that I was still sitting on the carpet
hunched over my journal. Yes, I had shaken the metaphorical snow
globe. No, I did not feel better.
I thumbed through it one last time and a quote suddenly caught my eye:
“These stupid people,” I had recorded one sergeant first class
saying, “all they understand is violence and force."
That did it. The journal went back in the box and I closed the lid. I
got up, flicked off the light, and shut the door. As that door clicked
tight, my mind returned to that quote: "These stupid people -- all
they understand is violence and force."
I wondered: Was he referring to the people of Afghanistan or to us?
_Erik Edstrom is the author of the new book _Un-American: A Soldier's
Reckoning of Our Longest War
[[link removed]]_ (Bloomsbury).
He is a graduate of West Point and the University of Oxford, was an
infantry officer, Army Ranger, and Bronze Star Medal recipient who
deployed to direct combat in Afghanistan._
_Follow _TomDispatch_ on Twitter
[[link removed]] and join us on Facebook
[[link removed]]. Check out the newest Dispatch
Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in
the __Splinterlands__ series) _Frostlands
[[link removed]]_,__ Beverly
Gologorsky's novel _Every Body Has a Story
[[link removed]],_ and
Tom Engelhardt's _A Nation Unmade by War
as well as Alfred McCoy's _In the Shadows of the American Century:
The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power
[[link removed]]_ and
John Dower's _The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since
World War II