Visions of War, West Point, and Waywardness
Erik Edstrom, Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of our Longest War (Bloomsbury, 2020).
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy mantra was, in brief, “Don’t do stupid shit.”
The extended version — pitched during my West Point commencement — elucidates the doctrine’s implicit critique of the president’s predecessors. In Obama’s rendition of history, many former presidents too hastily initiated conflicts abroad with little regard for the predictable second- and third-order consequences.
But surely no president has ever advertently pursued a strategic course suspecting the costs will outweigh the benefits (as noted previously on this platform). The fact that poor foreign policy outcomes sometimes still occur indicates that stupid shit isn’t nearly as recognizable from the outset as Obama suggested. Such was the “line in the sand” Obama drew vis-à-vis chemical weapons in Syria. Bashar Assad’s decision later to cross that line turned Obama’s gambling threat into brinkmanship. Obama wisely recognized the liability the red line became and prevented further embroiling the United States in yet another conflict it couldn’t win.
Like the red line that disappeared, some foreign policy projects aren’t inherently stupid so much as they become stupid with time.
Take, for instance, a war in Afghanistan that has so obviously outrun its usefulness. When Americans rallied ’round the flag in the ashes of the twin towers on Sept. 12, 2001, scarcely anyone could have envisioned what the resulting war on terror would mean for U.S. soldiers, for noncombatants and enemies overseas, and for the future of the United States.
Few Americans could have imagined the deaths of over 5,400 U.S. soldiers across the Greater Middle East — nearly half caused by roadside bombs — since war planners didn’t anticipate fighting multiple insurgencies against enemies employing improvised explosive devices as their weapon of choice. Few could have accurately imagined war from the other side. The humanitarian interventions of the 1990s suggested that the civilians on the other side might be grateful for U.S. intercession. Moreover, a “revolution in military affairs” made plain by 1991’s First Gulf War implied the U.S. military could decimate the ragtag Taliban quickly and cheaply. Even fewer could have envisioned the staggering costs, among them: a surveillance state that recast the American regime of rights; the calcification of the imperial presidency; compromises of national conscience from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay; $6.4 trillion and counting in borrowed expenses; and, so far, 335,745 overseas civilian deaths (9/11 times over a hundred).
The tragedy is that no society can accurately imagine war’s contingencies before the nation steps on the war footing. And yet, imagining a war before waging it is precisely the solution to avoiding future foreign folly posited in a new book by a fellow West Point graduate (who I don’t know personally) and former U.S. Army infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan.
In Un-American, Erik Edstrom provides a gripping firsthand account of the inefficiencies, hazards, and moral vacuity of continued political violence in America’s longest war. Combining personal anecdotes with considerable research about the larger Global War on Terror, Edstrom’s debut is a passionate account that eschews patronizing the reader, relieves the tensest moments with the darkest humor, and reflects the experience of a generation of junior officers doing their small, brief part in a big, endless war. Unfortunately, its taboo title will deter those who most need to read it: bumper sticker patriots, foreign policy careerists, and the chicken hawks who send American men and women to play what Edstrom calls “war’s game of musical chairs.”
Familiar for its grit, setting, and search for meaning but unique in its polemical tone and truth-telling conclusions, the book is both a member of and outcast within a burgeoning collection of post-9/11 coming-of-age stories that tell the tale of a wide-eyed boy becoming a wise, reflective man through the test of war. Quite alone among the cohort of West Point Oxonians writing memoirs about Afghanistan, however, Edstrom supplies a welcome antidote to his more mythmaking and self-congratulatory counterparts. Unlike them, Edstrom does not cast himself as the protagonist. While he recounts painful memories as a mode of self-conscious catharsis (as the book’s subtitle implies), those stories are ultimately put to work as the vivid supporting data behind his “un-American” call to action.
Taking a longer view reveals that Edstrom (apparently unknowingly) joins a chorus of West Point graduates in consensus that the crucible of combat tested their soul more than their competence. In fact, the “Long Gray Line” of memoirs was paved in enlightened remorse by Union generals who earned their stripes as the instruments of Manifest Destiny’s bloody southwestern expansion, later repenting in Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confession and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Alongside recent and upcoming alumni memoirs, Edstrom reinvigorates this literary tradition, reminding us that, even in the 21st century, war is (still) all hell.
In part memoir, in part manifesto, the book is all relentless rage. It’s the Afghanistan companion to West Point graduate Daniel Sjursen’s Ghost Riders of Baghdad, which shares Edstrom’s mix of storytelling and meditation as well as his unapologetic tone, grisly content, and antiwar purpose. At his best, Edstrom turns anecdotes to diagnosis like a budding Andrew Bacevich, the acerbic but rigorous colonel-turned-historian of U.S. military misadventures. In a cost-benefit analysis of building schools in rural Afghanistan, Edstrom’s talent for combining humor, metrics, and memories shines. Not infrequently does Edstrom become unmoored, however, and resemble Spenser Rapone, the angsty but eloquent cadet-turned-communist whom the Army fired last year for fomenting socialist revolution. Edstrom’s mostly thoughtful critiques are occasionally jeopardized by references to U.S. “state terrorism” and comical conspiracies, such as a relationship he concocts between folding tighty-whities and following illegal orders.
The taproot of America’s misguided war on terror is what Edstrom calls “lobotomized patriotism.” Never defined but illustrated throughout, this hashtag-friendly brand of patriotism is a byproduct of American exceptionalism that sees its military arm as an unequivocal “global force for good” rather than a blunt instrument for judicious application.
Lobotomized patriotism is the germ of America’s insatiable appetite for war, according to Edstrom, since it signs the carte blanche political and military leaders cash in to keep the war going, a war that Edstrom argues “exacerbates the problems it’s intended to resolve, devastates the people allegedly being helped, and diverts assets from far larger threats like climate change.”
Edstrom’s critique of America-can-do-no-wrong patriotism moves beyond well-worn complaints about how it insulates Americans from seeing themselves as they are. His book brings to the fore the all-too-kinetic foreign policy dimension of a creed that convinces its adherents the U.S. military is a benevolent leviathan only “un-American” folks would dare question.
Americans’ misunderstanding of their responsibility to “support the troops” harms not only themselves and the troops they revere, but also those at the pointy end of lobotomized patriotism’s spear thousands of miles away.
Three Visions to Prevent Unnecessary War
Edstrom asks each American to imagine three visions before lending support to a war: one’s own death in that war, the war from the perspective of those on the other side, and the opportunity costs engendered by belligerency. Only after imagining these visions, he contends, can they make an informed decision.
The unfortunate reality — nowhere explicitly acknowledged in Edstrom’s book but apparent throughout — is that lobotomized patriotism effectively forbids Americans from imagining that which he demands. In short, the lobotomy appears to have blinded America (a strange handicap for a nation that justifies its use of force because it can “see further”).
First, Americans cannot envision their own death in war. With such a paltry proportion of Americans in the military (for good reason), imagining one’s own death is an unnecessary thought exercise for most. Neither can soldiers reconcile the meaning of death in these wars, since in the event they do die, society will unfailingly canonize that sacrifice, regardless of its ultimate utility. Edstrom provides many examples of soldiers — heralded as heroes protecting the homeland in their hometown newspapers — who perished doing pointless things for a pointless war.
Second, lobotomized patriotism precludes Americans from imagining war from “the other side” — that is, from the perspective of the noncombatants and enemies occupying the war zone. Giving moral pride of place to the U.S. soldier invariably deprives noncombatants in faraway lands (whose “hearts and minds” are the very objective of counter-insurgency) of their equal humanity. American citizens and soldiers cannot conceive of war from the perspective of their enemy, either; the Manichean “good versus evil” dichotomy pervading lobotomized patriotism makes empathizing with the enemy cognitively onerous.
Third, Americans cannot appraise the costs of the war. Unconditional support for “the troops” — the key foreign policy dimension of lobotomized patriotism — blinds Americans to the costs of wartime and the opportunities forfeited as a result of fighting forever wars. Once engaged in a war of choice, lobotomized patriots claim the country must continue to fight, lest the deaths already suffered “be in vain,” setting hopeless wars in perpetual motion. This self-sustaining logic infects all U.S. military operations. Americans may never know the cost of any single war since wartime never ends, according to recent U.S. military doctrine that treats peace like an anachronism. By substituting a “competition continuum” for the binary states of “war” and “peace,” military planners introduce a mental model discounting the possibility of peace, leaving only the option to oscillate between competition and conflict.
Herein lies the paradox: The lobotomized patriotism Edstrom explicates robs Americans of the very imagination required to conceive the visions. And without the visions, Americans will continue to believe that questioning war questions American purpose. Fortunately, Edstrom overstates the ubiquity of lobotomized patriotism; after all, Americans voted in two post-9/11 presidents who campaigned against wars that continue today, suggesting the obsession with war permeates the foreign policy establishment more than ordinary America.
Still, the collective inability to imagine a war before commencing poses problems for Edstrom’s peace formula. But not all is lost. While the visions won’t prevent war, as Edstrom hopes, they may be able to end wars that overstay their welcome.
Imagination Is for Politicians, Evaluation Is for People
Americans can best reassert their role in national security decision-making not by imagining these visions before a war, but instead by evaluating (a kind of reimagining) those visions as the war unfolds. Americans can then hold elected officials accountable if and when the reality of the war doesn’t match the politicians’ prewar visions. But when and how to do so is not straightforward.
Famously described as “nonattitudes” for their ephemeral and incoherent qualities, Americans’ foreign policy “preferences” do not usually condition congressional choices or decide electoral fates. Free to all but ignore nonattitudes and happy to abdicate its role in foreign policymaking, Congress has indemnified the Supreme Court’s opinion that the president is the “sole organ” of making war.
The president’s de facto power to initiate war is the country’s rejection of the promise of democracy as an instrument of pacification. One advantage of republican government, according to early liberal advocates, is that war will be infrequent since those bearing its costs decide whether or not to fight.
Present-day political realities undermine the pacifying effect of democracy originally envisaged. The ambivalence of voters’ foreign policy views — beyond the entrenched belief that ongoing wars deserve ongoing support — means congressmembers remain less beholden to the vicissitudes of public opinion than to the status quo. Moreover, the introduction of the military’s all-volunteer force, for all its benefits, reduces politicians’ worries about the longevity and lethality of wars, since few Americans underwrite the risk.
The fact that Americans have little say in whether the nation goes to war does not make Edstrom’s visions a forlorn hope, however. For while the executive enjoys the prerogative to initiate and manage wars, ordinary Americans still possess the “retrospective advantage,” or the ex post facto right to evaluate them.
Rather than imagining the war before the war, as Edstrom recommends, the true civic duty becomes evaluating, early and often during the war’s course, what it would mean to die for the cause of this war, how the war is impacting the other side, and what the nation is forfeiting by continuing the war. If and when that evaluation doesn’t match the visions advertised by politicians and military brass at the war’s outset, the people retain the right to punish — via elections, protests, and impeachment — transgressions of their trust and the continuation of a war they no longer believe serves their interests. (This process should be assisted by a transparency and honesty from government leaders that’s been notably absent, as the “Afghanistan Papers” show.)
Just think if Americans had carefully evaluated the war in Afghanistan in March 2002. Six months after the U.S. invasion al-Qaeda operatives were either dead or fled and the Taliban were toppled, and thus accomplished were the original aims of reducing the threat to the homeland. Surveying the war’s progress and comparing it against the prewar visions outlined by political leadership would evince that the United States had met its mission and should withdraw. Instead, Americans’ apathy enabled mission creep, the price of which was, in small part, the several casualties Edstrom’s platoon sustained while “babysitting” a sliver of the U.S.-funded highway to nowhere that intersected rural Kandahar.
Americans’ failure to evaluate and punish, I think, is what most infuriates Edstrom. As the war on terror’s limited efficacy, false promises, and unrealized hopes came into starker relief, Americans didn’t wield the tools of retrospective advantage. Although Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump each ran on platforms of a restrained foreign policy, not one was held to account once their decisions as commander in chief violated their electoral promises.
From West Point to War and Back
It’s not just apathy toward the war’s excesses that earn Edstrom’s scourge. For a bitter man who’s had just enough time to brood, there are many persons, places, and things to blame. But memory can sometimes be the casualty of anger.
This is nowhere more evident than in Edstrom’s story of his indoctrination at West Point. Anticipating the “cosmic question” — why he was not enlightened with disillusionment before he went to war — Edstrom explains he was the victim of “industrial-strength brainwashing” at West Point. There he received “an education in deontology in which morality and the very concept of good and bad hinges on obeying rules.” Animated by a “culture of indifference toward the morality” of military conflicts, Edstrom claims West Point “doesn’t teach facts that would cause cadets” to be skeptical of U.S. military action or think about the ethical implications of missions they’re assigned. In a chapter-long diatribe against his alma mater, Edstrom seems to ride the coattails of a West Point law professor, who recently traced the woes of the U.S. military — since the Korean War — back to the academy’s undergraduate curriculum.
Edstrom entered West Point in 2003, just after President Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” announcement. Perhaps that West Point was a radically different place than the one I entered seven years later (meaning “the Corps [really] has”). But at a place often described as “two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” I doubt the difference was drastic.
To be sure, much of Edstrom’s 47-month academy experience resonated with me. I too recall sitting in that same auditorium he describes, watching highlight reels of soldiers raiding compounds and dropping bombs over Baghdad. I too recall Col. High-and-Tight yelling over the cheers and porn of gore soundtrack: “If this motivational video [of contextless ‘kill TV’] doesn’t pump you up, there’s the door for you to find another profession.”
Most of my active-duty instructors preceded Edstrom by only three years in service. Many of our civilian professors were the same people. And yet, I don’t recognize the classroom he describes.
I remember as a freshman contributing an unimpressive article to West Point’s social science journal. I was regrettably optimistic about the prospects of U.S. triumph in Afghanistan, and it was criticized by classmates and instructors. I remember my mandatory second-year philosophy class, overwhelmingly focused on the tenets and applications of Just War Theory, in which a career Special Forces officer explained to me how the ongoing Iraq War violated the moral tradition’s key mandates (echoing Noam Chomsky’s remarks — delivered at West Point — while Edstrom was there). I remember leading a panel the next year, where I pontificated about the moral hazards of drone warfare (which would not have stood well against a current cadet’s exceedingly more rigorous research highlighting the moral difference of drones).
Most clearly in contrast to Edstrom’s portrayal of an amoral institution, I remember submitting a paper my senior year recounting how, after three weeks embedded in an infantry platoon recently returned from Afghanistan, I alerted commanders to dehumanizing behaviors I’d seen. Coincidentally, the essay concluded with the very question Edstrom faced in Afghanistan: “Should a soldier fight a war he doesn’t believe is just?” For this whistleblowing story riddled with moral doubt, I wasn’t told to “stay in my lane” or excoriated for cowardice, as Edstrom’s account would suggest. Instead, I was awarded by West Point’s top general. Like all leaders there, he recognized the centrality of moral leadership in cadet education. Shortly before I graduated, West Point facilitated a focus group between soon-to-be officers and The Washington Post, where we expressed skepticism about the military’s strategy.
Granted, there never were antiwar protests outside West Point’s classrooms, but lecturing inside them was Andrew Bacevich, Gian Gentile, and Daniel Sjursen. As Army officers, these respected historians and uncompromising critics of U.S. military actions each taught history to cadets — history I’m certain they didn’t cast with a “glow of romance and nostalgia around military action” like Edstrom attests. I found West Point’s faculty, unlike much of the rest of the Army, largely populated by officers who understood the difference between being uninformed and uniformed.
Perhaps Edstrom’s depiction of West Point’s culture is a subconscious coping mechanism for offloading self-induced guilt for his part in what he later deemed an “immoral and illegal” war. Whatever his reason, painting West Point as a draconian, socially backward, and anti-intellectual institution drives his narrative; he was too deeply inculcated to have “known better” before going to war. But equally possible is that he went to Afghanistan with the same aspirations I did when I volunteered for a tour augmenting a special operations unit (as one of the “fobbits” Edstrom derides).
Like many of my classmates, I went to war because I wanted to know if it wasn’t still possible to contribute honorable service to a project I suspected was no longer honorable. An apropos quote Edstrom uses to divide his “kill” chapter of war stories from his “awakening” chapter suggests he did too. Borrowing from the Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal, Edstrom highlights: “To understand things we must have been once in them and then have come out of them.” I can’t say that I was quite “in things” when I went to Afghanistan; you’d be hard-pressed to find military officers going to Afghanistan in the past decade who thought they were headed to the “Graveyard of Empires” to win a war (other than the guy in charge, of course). But I wanted to feel “in things” just enough to “come out of them” with greater conviction about the absurdity of this war. I wanted to be in the thing of America’s war in Afghanistan because I wanted to know my country, what it stood for and what it was capable of. I wanted to know my comrades-in-arms and what they were made of. Above all, I wanted to know myself and what I’d die (and kill) for.
Edstrom reminds me (and hopefully others) that while deployed on this voyage of self-discovery we forfeited less encumbered versions of ourselves we’ll never know. Worse, the props we used to help “find ourselves” — the people and places of Afghanistan — were left picking up the pieces once we left.
I returned from my brief voyage with refined ideas about self, tribe, and state, all of which help me more fully imagine Edstrom’s visions and put them to work in the future as a citizen. But Edstrom’s hope is that, through his anguishing stories, others can imagine the visions without having to witness war for themselves. We should thank Edstrom for this and the moral injury he carries in his proverbial rucksack on our behalf.
To lighten his load a bit, let’s evaluate what we can. For the soldier: Is it possible to serve honorably in a dishonorable endeavor? For the citizen: What does genuine patriotism require? And for the country: When is enough retribution enough?
If Americans can’t take back the stupid shit already done, they can at least stop it. As a Chinese proverb tells us, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
Luke J. Schumacher is an active-duty U.S. Army officer, graduate of West Point and Cambridge University, and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.