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Watching My Students Turn Into Soldiers of Empire

Patches, pins, medals, and badges are the visible signs of an exclusive military culture, a silent language by which soldiers and officers judge each other’s experiences, accomplishments, and general worth. In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the “combat patch” on one’s right shoulder — evidence of a deployment with a specific unit — had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars “on terror,” the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn’t boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they’d seen “the elephant.”

We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother — as was mandatory for a 17-year-old — put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, “peace-keeping” deployment in a place like Kosovo.

Sure, the U.S. was then quietly starving hundreds of thousands of children with a crippling sanctions regime against autocrat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, occasionally lobbing cruise missiles at “terrorist” encampments here or there, and garrisoning much of the globe. Still, the life of a conventional Army officer in the late 1990s did fit pretty closely with my high-school fantasies.

You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that the world of future officers at the Academy irreparably changed when those towers collapsed in my home town of New York. By the following May, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear senior cadets on the phone with girlfriends or fiancées explaining that they were heading for war upon graduation.

As a plebe (freshman), I still had years ahead in my West Point journey during which our world changed even more. Older cadets I’d known would soon be part of the invasion of Afghanistan. Drinking excessively at a New York Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, I watched in wonder as, on TV, U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on Iraq as part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s promised “shock-and-awe” campaign.

Soon enough, the names of former cadets I knew well were being announced over the mess hall loudspeaker at breakfast. They’d been killed in Afghanistan or, more commonly, in Iraq.

My greatest fear then, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that I’d miss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t long after my May 28, 2005, graduation that I’d serve in Baghdad. Later, I would be sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I buried eight young men under my direct command. Five died in combat; three took their own lives. After surviving the worst of it with my body (though not my mind) intact, I was offered a teaching position back at my alma mater. During my few years in the history department at West Point, I taught some 300 or more cadets. It was the best job I ever had.

I think about them often, the ones I’m still in touch with and the majority whom I’ll never hear from or of again. Many graduated last year and are already out there carrying water for empire. The last batch will enter the regular Army next May. Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

A New Generation of Cadets Serving the Empire Abroad

West Point seniors (“first-class cadets”) choose their military specialties and their first duty-station locations in a manner reminiscent of the National Football League draft. This is unique to Academy grads and differs markedly from the more limited choices and options available to the 80% of officers commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Candidate School (OCS).

Throughout the 47-month academy experience, West Pointers are ranked based on a combination of academic grades, physical fitness scores, and military-training evaluations. Then, on a booze-fueled, epic night, the cadets choose jobs in their assigned order of merit. Highly ranked seniors get to pick what are considered the most desirable jobs and duty locations (helicopter pilot, Hawaii). Bottom-feeding cadets choose from the remaining scraps (field artillery, Fort Sill, Oklahoma).

In truth, though, it matters remarkably little which stateside or overseas base one first reports to. Within a year or two, most young lieutenants in today’s Army will serve in any number of diverse “contingency” deployments overseas. Some will indeed be in America’s mostly unsanctioned wars abroad, while others will straddle the line between combat and training in, say, “advise-and-assist” missions in Africa.

Now, here’s the rub: given the range of missions that my former students are sure to participate in, I can’t help but feel frustration. After all, it should be clear 18 years after the 9/11 attacks that almost none of those missions have a chance in hell of succeeding. Worse yet, the killing my beloved students might take part in (and the possibility of them being maimed or dying) won’t make America any safer or better. They are, in other words, doomed to repeat my own unfulfilling, damaging journey — in some cases, on the very same ground in Iraq and Afghanistan where I fought.

Consider just a quick survey of some of the possible missions that await them. Some will head for Iraq — my first and formative war — though it’s unclear just what they’ll be expected to do there. ISIS has been attritted to a point where indigenous security forces could assumedly handle the ongoing low-intensity fight, though they will undoubtedly assist in that effort. What they can’t do is reform a corrupt, oppressive Shia-chauvinist sectarian government in Baghdad that guns down its own protesting people, repeating the very mistakes that fueled the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Oh, and the Iraqi government, and a huge chunk of Iraqis as well, don’t wantany more American troops in their country. But when has national sovereignty or popular demand stopped Washington before?

Others are sure to join the thousands of servicemen still in Afghanistan in the 19th year of America’s longest ever war — and that’s even if you don’t count our first Afghan War (1979-1989) in the mix. And keep in mind that most of the cadets-turned-officers I taught were born in 1998 or thereafter and so were all of three years old or younger when the Twin Towers crumbled.

The first of our wars to come from that nightmare has always been unwinnable. All the Afghan metrics — the U.S. military’s own “measures for success” — continue to trend badly, worse than ever in fact. The futility of the entire endeavor borders on the absurd. It makes me sad to think that my former officemate and fellow West Point history instructor, Mark, is once again over there. Along with just about every serving officer I’ve known, he would laugh if asked whether he could foresee — or even define — “victory” in that country. Take my word for it, after 18-plus years, whatever idealism might once have been in the Army has almost completely evaporated. Resignation is what remains among most of the officer corps. As for me, I’ll be left hoping against hope that someone I know or taught isn’t the last to die in that never-ending war from hell.

My former cadets who ended up in armor (tanks and reconnaissance) or ventured into the Special Forces might now find themselves in Syria — the war President Trump “ended” by withdrawing American troops from that country, until, of course, almost as many of them were more or less instantly sent back in. Some of the armor officers among my students might even have the pleasure of indefinitely guarding that country’s oil fields, which — if the U.S. takes some of that liquid gold for itself — might just violate international law. But hey, what else is new?

Still more — mostly intelligence officers, logisticians, and special operators — can expect to deploy to any one of the dozen or so West African or Horn of Africa countries that the U.S. military now calls home. In the name of “advising and assisting” the local security forces of often autocratic African regimes, American troops still occasionally, if quietly, die in “non-combat” missions in places like Niger or Somalia.

None of these combat operations have been approved, or even meaningfully debated, by Congress. But in the America of 2019 that doesn’t qualify as a problem. There are, however, problems of a more strategic variety. After all, it’s demonstrably clear that, since the founding of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, violence on the continent has only increased, while Islamist terror and insurgent groups have proliferated in an exponential fashion. To be fair, though, such counterproductivity has been the name of the game in the “war on terror” since it began.

Another group of new academy graduates will spend up to a year in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states of Eastern Europe. There, they’ll ostensibly train the paltry armies of those relatively new NATO countries — added to the alliance in foolish violation of repeated American promises not to expand eastward as the Cold War ended. In reality, though, they’ll be serving as provocative “signals” to a supposedly expansionist Russia. With the Russian threat wildly exaggerated, just as it was in the Cold War era, the very presence of my Baltic-based former cadets will only heighten tensions between the two over-armed nuclear heavyweights. Such military missions are too big not to be provocative, but too small to survive a real (if essentially unimaginable) war.

The intelligence officers among my cadets might, on the other hand, get the “honor” of helping the Saudi Air Force through intelligence-sharing to doom some Yemeni targets — often civilian — to oblivion thanks to U.S. manufactured munitions. In other words, these young officers could be made complicit in what’s already the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

Other recent cadets of mine might even have the ignominious distinction of being part of military convoys driving along interstate highways to America’s southern border to emplace what President Trump has termed “beautiful” barbed wire there, while helping detain refugees of wars and disorder that Washington often helped to fuel.

Yet other graduates may already have found themselves in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia, since Trump has dispatched 3,000 U.S. troops to that country in recent months. There, those young officers can expect to go full mercenary, since the president defended his deployment of those troops (plus two jet fighter squadrons and two batteries of Patriot missiles) by noting that the Saudis would “pay” for “our help.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that basing American troops near the Islamic holy cities of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t exactly end well the last time around — you undoubtedly remember a guy named bin Laden who protested that deployment so violently — the latest troop buildup in Saudi Arabia portends a disastrous future war with Iran.

None of these potential tasks awaiting my former students is even remotely linked to the oath (to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”) that newly commissioned officers swear on day one. They are instead all unconstitutional, ill-advised distractions that benefit mainly an entrenched national security state and the arms-makers that go with them. The tragedy is that a few of my beloved cadets with whom I once played touch football, who babysat my children, who shed tears of anxiety and fear during private lunches in my office might well sustain injuries that will last a lifetime or die in one of this country’s endless hegemonic wars.

A Nightmare Come True

This May, the last of the freshman cadets I once taught will graduate from the Academy. Commissioned that same afternoon as second lieutenants in the Army, they will head off to “serve” their country (and its imperial ambitions) across the wide expanse of the continental United States and a broader world peppered with American military bases. Given my own tortured path of dissent while in that military (and my relief on leaving it), knowing where they’re heading leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. In a sense, it represents the severing of my last tenuous connection with the institutions to which I dedicated my adult life.

Though I was already skeptical and antiwar, I still imagined that teaching those cadets an alternative, more progressive version of our history would represent a last service to an Army I once unconditionally loved. My romantic hope was that I’d help develop future officers imbued with critical thinking and with the integrity to oppose unjust wars. It was a fantasy that helped me get up each morning, don a uniform, and do my job with competence and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, as my last semester as an assistant professor of history wound down, I felt a growing sense of dread. Partly it was the realization that I’d soon return to the decidedly unstimulating “real Army,” but it was more than that, too. I loved academia and “my” students, yet I also knew that I couldn’t save them. I knew that they were indeed doomed to take the same path I did.

My last day in front of a class, I skipped the planned lesson and leveled with the young men and women seated before me. We discussed my own once bright, now troubled career and my struggles with my emotional health. We talked about the complexities, horror, and macabre humor of combat and they asked me blunt questions about what they could expect in their future as graduates. Then, in my last few minutes as a teacher, I broke down. I hadn’t planned this, nor could I control it.

My greatest fear, I said, was that their budding young lives might closely track my own journey of disillusionment, emotional trauma, divorce, and moral injury. The thought that they would soon serve in the same pointless, horrifying wars, I told them, made me “want to puke in a trash bin.” The clock struck 1600 (4:00 pm), class time was up, yet not a single one of those stunned cadets — unsure undoubtedly of what to make of a superior officer’s streaming tears — moved for the door. I assured them that it was okay to leave, hugged each of them as they finally exited, and soon found myself disconcertingly alone. So I erased my chalkboards and also left.

Three years have passed. About 130 students of mine graduated in May. My last group will pin on the gold bars of brand new army officers in late May 2020. I’m still in touch with several former cadets and, long after I did so, students of mine are now driving down the dusty lanes of Iraq or tramping the narrow footpaths of Afghanistan.

My nightmare has come true.

This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.

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