Heaven Protect Us From Men Who Live the Illusion of Danger: Pete Buttigieg and the US Military

Photograph Source: Alan Light – CC BY 2.0

“America deserves a Commander-in-Chief who knows what that sacrifice means and who will honor the sacred promise we make to our veterans.”

– Pete Buttigieg January 6, 2020

#CIAPete has been trending on social media this past month as stories and commentaries have emerged telling and re-telling Pete Buttigieg’s role as a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan, his duties in his assignment in Kabul as a member of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, and his relationship to CIA colleagues. This would be all rather amusing and just another dust speck of non-sense in the vast universe of inanity that is the US presidential race, if it were not for Buttigieg’s own use of his time in uniform and in Afghanistan as a cudgel to silence others from both an informed and moral perspective on issues of foreign policy and war.

Buttigieg worked alongside CIA officers in a multi-agency organization in Kabul, hence the hashtag #CIAPete. According to his own autobiography he didn’t spend much time working on intelligence and fighting the Taliban, but rather worked as a driver, chauffeuring other officers during an admitted eight hour work day in Kabul. As someone who did three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I know very few military officers who experienced 8 hour work days in either country, nearly all officers I knew, including myself, worked 12-18 hour days – and there were plenty of times, especially during my second deployment, that 20 hour days were common. That Buttigieg was a driver in Afghanistan is more telling than anything else about Buttigieg’s time in Afghanistan, more so since he speaks so assuredly and confidently of his time in Afghanistan as he runs for president and uses that experience to pronounce himself as personally informed about matters of war and peace. We’ve seen this all very often over the last twenty years in the US: men and women, because they wore matching shirts and pants and took part in murderous and strategically incompetent invasions, occupations and wars, are given a deference that is religious in its severity and authority. As Buttigieg uses this para-clerical status to his advantage, his words and pronouncements are taken as a battle-scarred wisdom that others who have not worn a uniform are not just foolish for questioning, but are heretical. Take, for example, these words from CNN about Buttigieg and his military service:

“His six years as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves, along with a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, makes a gold-plated resume not only shine brighter, but with an air of validation….

It’s a chapter of his life that he invokes at nearly every campaign stop, a piece of his biography that has become nearly as central to his presidential candidacy as his Midwestern roots or his time as mayor. He mentions his credentials to distinguish himself from not only most Democratic rivals, but also President Donald Trump…

“Look, it’s not like I killed (Osama) Bin Laden, right?” Buttigieg said. “I don’t want to overstate what my role was, but it certainly is something that was dangerous.”

A man who has lived the illusion of danger is a dangerous man. Someone who posits that illusion as a fact and as a real occurrence, as Buttigieg does, is one certainly to be wary of. These wars were begun by men and women who have never known danger, but who postulated of going to the dark side and quipped bring em on, and these wars have been sustained by an insipid and specious assuredness of the necessity of war and violence by a generation of politicians, cable news hosts and editorial boards. We are a nation that has killed and ruined millions abroad and we celebrate those killings in a religious ritualization of the military that has infested our schools, stadiums, boardrooms, churches and both political parties. In Buttigieg we now have this personified. See his war photos, a boy playing dress up in camouflage and rifle, and you have America in that image, and perhaps it is right and fitting that that image, that illusion, should become president.

Buttigieg received a direct commission into the Navy. Those who are directly commissioned into the military do not attend the service academies, do not complete ROTC training while at college, or do not attend Officer Candidate School. Rather they attend a ten day direct commission officer indoctrination course where they learn how to wear the uniform, are taught the rank structure, practice saluting, etc. The purpose of such a direct commissioning program is for the US military to bring in specialists needed in times of crisis or emergency, such as doctors, chaplains and lawyers. I knew a couple of direct commission naval officers that were public and media relations people. The direct commissioning program is also a way for the politically well connected to become military officers without enduring the selection and hardship involved in officer training. The most famous of such a political cast is Hunter Biden, who lasted a month as a Navy officer before his drug test results were returned positive for illegal narcotics usage. I knew several direct commission officers who were such dilettantes, men who certainly understood the political prestige and potency of the US military uniform, especially a pretty one, like the Navy’s, but who saw no value in earning their rank.

According to the released documents of Buttigieg’s naval service, he fits the mold of political actor in military costume. His only time on active duty, as determined by a review of his military records, besides his time in Afghanistan, which I will discuss, was in that two week long direct commissioning course. There is no record, and here I will offer the possibility that his record in incomplete, of his attendance at any form of military schools or his participation whether as a mobilized active duty officer or a drilling reservist. His record contains only one DD-214, which is the record of active duty service for military members. In addition to his time in Afghanistan, his DD-214 lists 1 month and 23 days of active service, but only 12 days of that are accounted for in a fitness report (a performance evaluation), and that was for his time at the direct commission course. Otherwise, there is no record of any other time when Buttigieg actually would have been working or performing as a naval officer. Again, the records may be incomplete, and they also may be incorrect. Looking at his records I noticed he had fitness reports that overlapped in time, an administrative error that should not have occurred. Anyone who is competent, and who wants to make sure they are promoted, would have any and all periods of active duty or reserve duty recorded and filed with the Navy’s Bureau of Personnel. Now Buttigieg had a political benefactor, possibly someone he met working on the Obama campaign in 2008, so I am quite sure Buttigieg wouldn’t have cared for such things or thought such administrative requirements applied to him.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of a DD-214 as it is the record of service for which military members and veterans depend upon to detail all manner of events and qualifications such as time in service, record of promotion, combat experience, schools attended, awards received, etc. Buttigieg’s one DD-214 has two glaring and empty fields: PMOS and schools. These fields are empty, not redacted. Personal information is redacted elsewhere in his record, the fields being empty in this case means there is no information to enter.

PMOS stands for Primary Military Occupational Speciality. It is the job for which the military has trained you. In the Marine Corps, I had a MOS of 1302, combat engineer officer. There are as many occupational specialities as you can think of in the military, everything from infantryman to cook to veterinarian. God knows what specialities Trump’s new space force will have. PMOS contains the word primary, because as men and women spend time in the military, through training, education and assignment they can also receive a secondary MOS. For example, a fighter pilot can become a test pilot or an astronaut, or a soldier who learns a language can become a foreign area analyst. Buttigieg has no record of a PMOS or of having attended any military schools. He describes himself as an intelligence officer, but according to his documentation, he had no assigned MOS. Buttigieg was assigned to a reserve intelligence unit, for which there is no record of him actually ever participating with them, all his fitness reports denote he was on inactive duty during those time periods (there are anecdotal interviews with members of the reserve unit that attest to Buttigieg attending weekend drill, although how often and for how long is not known).

Buttigieg’s assignment to an intelligence unit seemingly had more to do with geographically proximity than anything else. If he had received a direct commission in the Marines, a practice I don’t think the Marines actually take part in, and lived in Phoenix, he would have been assigned to a bulk fuel reserve unit, because that is the reserve unit in the Phoenix area. In Indiana, for Buttigieg, the nearest naval reserve unit may have been the naval reserve intelligence unit located at Fort Sheridan, IL and so that was to where he was assigned and as to why he was an “intelligence officer”. Fortunately, for Buttigieg and his campaign, he was assigned to an intelligence unit and not to a bulk fuel unit, as that plays so much better for the national audience, although I admire bulk fuel personnel over intelligence personnel any time – bulk fuel never let me down, intel often did.

As mentioned, there is no record of Buttigieg attending any military schools or receiving any specialized training. This is why he has no MOS, because in order to receive a MOS you have to attend the appropriate school (in some situations one may acquire a secondary MOS through on the job training). In the more than four years between the time he was appointed into the Navy and when he went to Afghanistan, Buttigieg obviously didn’t find it necessary or worthwhile to gain a MOS or attend a school that would give him the training and education needed to actually perform as a naval officer during that four year period. Again, there are no official records of his time with the reserve unit. It’s likely he did spend some weekends there as a reservist, but there is no record of him taking part in longer periods of mobilization, or even a two week long annual training: in short nothing that would qualify him to speak with such certainty and command from behind the presidential campaign podium about issues of war or peace, terrorism or drones, or sacrifice or loss.

Buttigieg did go to Afghanistan in 2014 for a roughly six month deployment. The job description on his official orders to Afghanistan describes him as a liaison officer to the joint interagency task force. Anyone who has been a part of these wars or the military will tell you such a title is essentially meaningless, that such a title often carries no real duties or tasks, and that the description of the job found in Buttigieg’s released and redacted military records is simply boilerplate and administrative verbiage. Similarly, that Buttigieg was assigned to the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) is simply just an administrative assignment, one of hundreds or thousands each year the Naval Reserve Command makes throughout Africa and the Greater Middle East. As noted above, in his autobiography and in many interviews, Buttigieg admits working in Afghanistan as a driver for other officers. That an egoist and self promoter like Buttigieg would admit being a driver rather than hyping a James Bond spy or Audie Murphy war experience reveals a fundamental reality about Buttigieg’s time at war along with a confusing and concerning question: why was an officer performing driver duties daily? With an 8 hour day as Buttigieg describes, and the amount of time such trips always take in Afghanistan and Iraq – even if you are just going one mile down the road such an event might take three hours of preparation and waiting – Buttigieg would have had little time in his day for any other duties, particularly the time intensive work that often accompanies those doing intelligence analysis. I’ve also never known officers to drive in an official capacity. This may have been because the unit was short of personnel, in one interview I reviewed, Buttigieg explains his driving was because he was one of the few who had been trained with a rifle. However, without a MOS, and without having had any training, Buttigieg may have had very little to do in Kabul beside drive and guard vehicles while other men and women did the intelligence work. It’s entirely possible too Buttigieg had only a secret clearance, rather than the top secret clearance that would have been required to do the sort of work done in an intelligence unit or by the ATFC.

Certainly here I am judging Buttigieg without much to go on, making assumptions on a man’s character and performance when I have nothing but redacted forms and his own political opportunism to go by, along with the words in his book and interviews. I offer my hesitation of my criticisms and conjectures of Buttigieg with a good degree of sincerity, because over the last ten years I found myself unfairly and inaccurately criticized and mis-characterized over my own experiences at war and in my career. His role as a driver could have just been the result of bad timing, lots of men and women in the military end up filling less than desired positions, because they had the unfortunate luck of showing up at the wrong time – so, it’s possible that Buttigieg showed up in Kabul when they were short a driver and he was told to do it. Still, for the 22 years I was in and have been around the military, this is the first I have ever heard of an officer being assigned as a driver and, again, his lack of military training and education would severely limit his usefulness to his assigned unit in Kabul. It should also be noted, because although Buttigieg speaks often to the danger that he partook in in Afghanistan, there is no record of his having seen any combat while he was there.

Swift-boating hangs over my head while I type this, but the swift-boating of John Kerry was perpetuated by a political group in spite of a trove of records attesting to Kerry’s time in the Navy. Rather, here I am a politically unconnected veteran, tired and angry of the wars and the lies, writing against a man running for president who speaks often of his time in the Navy, but has astonishingly little record to show of it; his campaign frequently denies requests for more information or explanation of his time in the Navy. Buttigieg doesn’t speak against the wars or even in terms of reining them in, however he does praise Israeli military forces as they shoot dead and maim thousands of unarmed people across a heavily fortified border and he suggests sending the US military into Mexico. He may have lived an illusion of danger, but there is no doubt he would be a dangerous president.

When Alex Rubinstein of The Grayzone published his piece discussing Buttigieg’s assignment to the ATFC and his potential relationship to the CIA, I was asked by more than one friend about it. First, for all the social media commentary about the ATFC being super-spooky, unknown and shadowy, it is an organization that has a wikipedia page and one who’s origins began not with David Petraeus in 2008, although it’s not a surprise that such a vainglorious mouthpiece like Petraeus would take credit for it, but rather in similar terrorist threat finance operations and investigations by interagency task forces, led by the Treasury Department, during the first term of George W. Bush’s administration. These cells and tracking operations were themselves built upon and modeled after previous pre-9/11 US government efforts. Secondly, any success ATFC has been credited with, along with any anti-corruption successes of the American government in Afghanistan, is nothing compared to the lack of success in defeating corruption in Afghanistan, a corruption that is almost entirely a consequence and result of the US occupation of the last 18 plus years. Without the billions in cash flown into Afghanistan from the US, without this money and the accompanying foreign soldiers, mercenaries and weapons to keep the Kabul government in place, and without the complete willingness and complicity of the US government and military to go along with a predatory kleptocracy in Kabul, composed of drug lords and war criminals, such anti-corruption work would not be necessary.

The intersection of the US government and the Afghan drug lords, men who compose large and influential elements within the Afghan government and military, is nothing new to anyone who understands how the US has aligned with criminal and drug interests for close to two centuries now. Beginning with the infamous China Trade in the first half of the 19th century, which spawned some of the wealthiest and politically active dynastic families in the US, through the use of European mafia and drug gangs post WWII, through the wars in SE Asia, US government, intelligence and military involvement with organized crime and drugs has been the overwhelming rule, rather than the exception.

The ATFC is run in conjunction with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The DEA has had a large presence in Afghanistan that began in the years after the US invasion in 2001. Afghanistan, which produced narcotics only in amounts suitable for internal use prior to the 1980s, became a global source of opium after the CIA introduced it from Pakistan and India in the 1980s. The purpose in this introduction was to help finance the proxy US war against the Soviet Union and Afghan communist government. It is appropriate to note the British introduced opium crops to India and Pakistan as a way to support their Empire’s wars and military, and the French utilized opium crops in the 1940s and 50s in Vietnam to finance their war against Vietnamese independence. When the US entered Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had cut the opium crop cultivation to near zero levels. Ever since then, despite more than $8 billion in dedicated funding for anti-narcotics efforts and an unquantifiable amount of bombast and pledges, including denunciations of an axis of evil between Muslim terrorists and narcotics kingpins, recited as an article of faith by DEA, ATFC and JTIAF men and women I have met in DC, Kabul and Kandahar, drug production in Afghanistan has risen each year, breaking records, near-annually, for cultivation and production of illicit opium crops and products. Where prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 Afghanistan provide statistically none of the world’s heroin and other opiates, now Afghanistan provides 80-90% of it. That the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the mass rise in Afghanistan’s opium production, and the opiate crisis in the US, which killed 200 people each day in 2017, has coincided seems to be lost on US members of Congress and the media. I imagine this would be a good question for one of these presidential debates…

It’s not to say that the ATFC and their assigned commando and drone strike forces have done nothing in Afghanistan. As will be discussed below, a lot of dead civilians can be connected to its work. Additionally, there are a number of dead drug lords in Afghanistan who ran afoul of the drug lords in the Afghan government that were on the US payroll or were US proxies and were then obligingly killed by the US. Much of the activity of the ATFC, as it was realized, was to rub out the competition for the drug lords that were part of the Afghan government and Afghan military. Like my criticisms of Buttigieg’s duties in Afghanistan, I say all this with a heaviness of mind and heart, because I had a friend, Mike Weston, dead ten years now, who was a Marine officer with me and then later died in Afghanistan as a DEA agent doing this kind of fatal, illusory work: the helicopter he was in crashed as he and his teammates were being sent to knock off the competition of one of our Afghan government or military partners.

The work of the ATFC is not limited to protecting the Afghan drug lords that are our friends, it also protects US friends in the Persian Gulf who provide much of the financing for the insurgency that has killed almost 3,600 US, Canadian, Australian and European soldiers, killed roughly an equal amount of contractors (who due to the privatization of war were performing roles that soldiers would have done in previous wars), wounded tens of thousands, and crippled and maimed hundreds of thousands with war’s invisible wounds: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and moral injury. This says nothing of course about the millions of dead, mutilated, harmed, traumatized and displaced Afghans, who due to US policy have known nothing but war in their country since the 1970s.

When I worked on the wars, both in Washington, DC, and then in Afghanistan, it was known the Taliban had four major sources of funding. They did get some money from taxing the drug trade, but, as discussed, those who profited the most from the ever growing drug trade, and controlled it, were Afghan government and military men, and associates. The second source of funds for the Taliban was from the massive US development program through which they siphoned off funds, extorted winners of contracts, or taxed those who earned money from working with US forces. For example, when I was in Afghanistan, in the province I was in, it was known the man who was in charge of the schools for the provincial government had a brother who was a Taliban commander a couple of provinces over. When the teachers didn’t get paid, everything there was done in cash, it was not a surprise to learn where that money had gone. Pakistan, particularly through its intelligence service, was a third source of funding for the Taliban, as it had been since the Taliban’s creation and rise in the 1990s.

The fourth, and, if I recall correctly from the classified information I had access to, the largest source of funding for the Taliban was from supporters in the Gulf States, those friends of the US in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Although the understanding of this by the US government was partially revealed in Chelsea Manning’s heroic Wikileaks release, the idea US allies were funding to a large degree the men that were killing American boys and girls in Afghanistan has been something both the US government and the non-adversarial corporate media has been loath to discuss. The same is true for Iraq, where the bulk of the funding for the majority of the insurgents that killed the great majority of US soldiers in the Iraq occupation came not from Iran, but from US allies in the Gulf. Those supporters of Sunni insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have funded similar insurgents and militias in Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, including units of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Rather than bring about and expose such information, acting on the evidence of the Gulf State monarchies support for the Taliban and other Sunni militant groups, the ATFC, like the rest of the USG, hides and covers such information to keep US weapons sales to those states viable and to avoid any embarrassment to US politicians and generals, even as the war, and its dead and suffering, is continually funded. The ATFC, lacking in any intellectual or moral honesty, is the organization Buttigieg worked with in Kabul.

There is something very macabre to see in the Wikipedia profile of ATFC; a Wikipedia page undoubtedly managed and edited by a US public relations officer or contractor in Kabul. Per Wikipedia, 28 targets (human beings to you and me) were successfully placed on the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL). The JPEL is a centralized kill list that assigns bombs, drones and commando raids to a list of people to be assassinated. When I was familiar with the JPEL in Afghanistan in 2009 there were thousands of people on that list, and a very large portion of them were innocent – so many that several of my colleagues and I went to ISAF headquarters in Kabul to speak about the process of getting people removed from the list. For anyone who understands that the truest things about war can be found in Catch-22 and MASH, books I wonder if Buttigieg has ever read, it will not be a surprise that while it was relatively easy to add someone to the JPEL, effectively granting them, and family and neighbors around them, a death sentence by a bomb, missile or gunshot to the head, it was bureaucratically near-impossible to remove names from the list. Leaked DOD assessments show 90% of those killed in our drone strikes have been innocents and I would suggest similar numbers are true for our commando raids. Various estimates have suggested, including from conversations I had while still being associated with such bloody work, that half of our commando missions targeted the wrong people, buildings and villages, and even when US forces struck the correct person (correct here meaning someone who had legitimate ties to an insurgent group and not just someone randomly or intentionally mislabeled as Taliban by a paid informant) wives, children, parents, siblings and neighbors were often executed alongside them.

So while 28 people were placed onto the JPEL by ATFC, a small amount compared to the thousands that have been on that list, it is still 28 people. A sizable number of that 28 would have been innocent, again, based on everything we know about US military and intelligence operations throughout the Greater Middle East and Africa. Among those who were actual Taliban, men who are fighting us primarily because we are occupying them, how many people were executed alongside and around them simply because they were relatives or neighbors?

To the man or woman declaring such a thing as killing 28 targets as an accomplishment in Wikipedia, such understanding of those 28 as people is non-existent. For these types of men and women, like Buttigieg, who live through and promote a war, while not fully participating it, are the men and women that allow these wars to continue. They are the ones that write and publish the narratives, who offer the continual and never-ending hagiographies, and who speak of having lived danger when they have never heard a shot fired. It is these men and women whose understanding of the killing and dying doesn’t exist in their own personal experiences, but lives simply in what they have read about or been told.

One of the most insightful quotes about war and the US presidency is attributed to Dwight Eisenhower by his daughter, Susan. Later in his time in office, Eisenhower, while looking at his chair in the Oval Office, stated: God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.

Eisenhower said this not because of a need for a commander in chief to understand strategy and tactics or to have the experience in operations or logistics that he did, but rather to understand the generals and admirals lie, that they always lie. Going through his interviews and his book I came across photo after photo of Buttigieg smiling, hands clasped or arms around the back of one general after another, with a sense of admiration and wonder like the kid in that old Coca Cola commercial with Mean Joe Greene. Nothing Buttigieg has said about his Navy experience, and certainly nothing in his military records, would lead me to believe he would ever stand up to the generals and admirals, let alone know when they are lying. The military has always been a political tool for Buttigieg and I don’t know why it would ever not be. The generals and admirals are men and women useful to him for the visages and popularity they provide, they are not something to be truly understood or controlled, and certainly not anything to contradict or oppose.

Buttigieg may be perfectly correct for this country, a Hollywood nation where gun owners live lives of violent fantasy, a wealthy nation underwritten by racism, poverty and jail, and a Christian nation that kills much much more than it saves, both at home and abroad. A man with no substance or experience, but with a uniform and photographs to sell a narrative, perhaps that is what we deserve. May heaven protect us, although that is something we may not deserve – ask any of those who are living through the hell of this third world war the US has started and sustained from Western Africa to Central Asia.


Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy.