Meet the veterans who chose ‘paths of dissent’
One of my heroes, Major General Smedley Butler, said “We Americans who will protect our flag should have a voice in where it is flown.” The two-time Medal of Honor recipient and author of War is a Racket exemplifies the model of a dissident soldier.
Voices of today’s soldiers, all veterans of the Global War on Terror, have been collected in a new anthology, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, edited by (Ret.) Maj. Danny Sjursen and (Ret.) Col. Andrew Bacevich, President of the Quincy Institute.
The book shares fifteen individual stories of how soldiers — in some ways big, in some ways small — dissented from what their high command, their government, and in many ways society expected of them as they advocated to bring our troops home.
Their perspective should come as no surprise. “War dissent is committed by those with a deep love for the country and its soldiers, for honesty, justice, humanity, and the rule of law. They bring light to situations clouded by secrecy, lies, and propaganda,” relates contributor Kevin Tillman, whose family is intimately familiar with the government’s secrecy, lies, and propaganda.
For several years, polls have demonstrated that veterans support military withdrawals from the Middle East at higher percentages than the civilian population. We witnessed firsthand the failures of nation-building, the ineffectiveness of raw military power to solve political problems, and the lack of coherent strategy or victory conditions.
As contributor Matthew Hoh discloses, “The entire U.S. government, including our military, intelligence, and diplomatic corps, was — and is — full of people who don’t believe in America’s endless wars, don’t believe in our supposed reasons for fighting them, and don’t believe that the sacrifices and costs are worthwhile.”
What Paths of Dissent achieves is giving a human face to those polls.
Each veteran writes in their own unique style — some very casual, others much more academic — with each new chapter a refreshing change from the one before it. Others who have served will recognize many moments in the book related to their own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Encountering “waste, fraud, and abuse” is a common moment. Daniel L. Davis witnessed how military contractors falsified weapons test results so they could continue fleecing the U.S. taxpayer for billions, all under the nose of a Pentagon leadership content to keep the money flowing. Gil Barndollar recalls overseeing the construction of a schoolhouse in the remotest part of Afghanistan, so shoddily put together by local contractors that it stood a better chance of collapsing on the children’s heads than educating any of them.
The unglamorized carnage of war and counterinsurgency is another familiar theme. Dan Berschinski walks us through the day he lost his legs to an IED only a month into his deployment. Erik Edstrom describes an eighteen-year-old private in his platoon, “lying on his back, bones broken, blood pouring from his lacerated lips” from an antipersonnel mine blast, coughing blood onto his uniform as he pleaded, “I want to come back to the platoon, sir.” And Joy Damiani, tasked with creating a military-issued newspaper, describes a page of casualties whose “font size shrank in every issue, the list stretching into two and then three columns as the months heaved on.”
Lastly is realizing how your fellow Americans see you and your service, both during deployment and when you return. Buddhika Jayamaha compares the chattering commentariat (“peddlers of self-serving delusions”) back home to the “spiritual leaders” and clerics of Iraq, happy to bloviate about a situation where they have no skin in the game.
Elliott Woods says the men he served alongside “came home to a country that thanked them for their service but had little interest in understanding what they had actually done overseas or what they had left behind.” Jason Dempsey refers to this disposition as “respectful indifference” to “an institution applauded at sporting events but never questioned about what it does overseas.”
Paths of Dissent is addressed explicitly to that respectful but indifferent public. The book is not just an account of the Global War on Terror, but a plea for its immediate end. But for veterans, reforming American society may prove as difficult as trying to win in Afghanistan.
Several of the contributors lament how the connection between citizenship and public service has been severed by the elimination of the draft and the creation of an all volunteer force. In a country where less than 1percent of adults are on active duty and debt-spending replaces taxes, what incentive do most Americans have for caring about our wars? About the lives of our soldiers?
But despite the gargantuan task, in chapter after chapter these veterans describe the actions they’re taking to make a more conscientious citizenry, whether through writing, educating, or organizing. “[I]f you’re supposedly trying to stop a war, then you should be willing to sacrifice as much as those who are fighting it. If not, why bother?” asks Vincent Emanuele.
We labor tirelessly so that our brothers and sisters in uniform may be spared the consequences of our government’s bad choices. That’s patriotic dissent, and it’s why you must read this book.