“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” spasms on and we’re regularly reminded that healthcare workers, dangerously ill-equipped, 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 conditions.
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 snickered.
“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 scratch-outs.
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 paper cut.”
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 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 Postreleased “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 be emplaced.
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 literal sense.
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 adrenaline.
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 the grapevines.
I turned to my forward observer, Brock. “Can we get rotary-wing assets on station?”
“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 killing us.
“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 located?”
“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” — 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 an option.
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 his company.
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 book, Un-American.
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 year.
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 (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.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.